Reporters attending the debut news conference of Chinese premier Li Keqiang at the close of the National People's Congress in Beijing this week were warned that they would be blacklisted if they asked about the widening investigation into relatives and political allies of former security czar Zhou Yongkang. Hong Kong's English-language South China Morning Post newspaper said reporters were told by officials they would be unable to ask questions at future events if they asked the premier about Zhou.
Veteran Beijing political journalist Gao Yu told RFA's Mandarin Service that the move had a chilling effect on a usually lively event:
This looks as if it came from central government. They don't want a single question that crosses any boundaries. This sort of control over public expression seems to me much stricter than [the previous administration under president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao].
People usually have high hopes of premier's news conference at the end of the parliamentary sessions. Now that they've been warned off, journalists will be even more curious. But foreign journalists also need a work permit to work in China. Recently, the New York Times crossed a line [in reporting assets linked to former premier Wen Jiabao] and they won't even give out visas to a lot of their journalists. So they need to be realistic on this matter.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang speaks at a press conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 13, 2014. Photo credit: AFP.
No one asked [about Zhou] because they gave journalists a line which they mustn't cross. There was none of the usual liveliness in trying to ask questions, or asking additional questions [that we used to see].
There is a very fierce power struggle going on behind the scenes at the moment. The most important issue right now is about when they can wrap up the Zhou case; about how soon the Politburo standing committee can cross this line.
My own analysis is that the old guard, former standing committee members, aren't 100 percent sure about [the Zhou investigation], with at least 90 percent of them maintaining that [investigating a former standing committee member] is a line which can't be crossed, otherwise everyone would feel insecure all the time.
They think it's all right to deal with Zhou Yongkang behind closed doors, even to the point of expelling him from the party. But it should have nothing to do with criminal law, and shouldn't go to trial in the judicial system.
So, in future, if this gets announced, it could be as the result of a party investigation only. If there is a real breakthrough; if both Zhou Yongkang and [jailed former Chongqing party chief] Bo Xilai appear in open court, that will indicate a victory for [President] Xi Jinping.Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated by Luisetta Mudie.