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China pledges anticorruption battle at National People’s Congress

A delegate from a Chinese ethnic minority group arrives at the Great Hall of the People on Friday.
A delegate from a Chinese ethnic minority group arrives at the Great Hall of the People on Friday.

BEIJING — Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao struck a triumphant note on Friday in his work report to the 3,000 delegates gathered at the opening of session of the annual National People’s Congress in Beijing.

In a time of a global battle against economic uncertainty, “China has won” was the tone of Wen’s message, said one sheepish Antipodean correspondent caught cutting out early from Wen’s speech, an annual and typically highly predictable event.

“It’s quite a procedure for something without any surprises,” says Johnny Erling of the German daily Die Welt, who has covered every NPC for the last decade. “They all start the same way.”

This year Wen’s take-home message was that the government would step up the fight against corruption, a tacit acknowledgment that the widespread problem has a direct bearing on the Communist Party’s grip on power. Wen also said transparency should empower the people and the media to oversee the government.

Yet for the roughly 500 reporters representing overseas news organizations in Beijing, it’s not the words of the premier that matter so much, but the words of the low-level politicians from across China gathered in the capital for the next two weeks. “What we can get out of the NPC is listening,” Erling says.

A few years ago, for the first time, the foreign press were invited into panel discussions that sometimes hint at what’s to come. In 2007, for instance, one such panel introduced Xi Jinping. Then a part of the Shanghai delegation, Mr. Xi now is widely expected to be named president in 2012.

Veterans watch the ‘no’ votes

Veterans say they watch for high numbers of symbolic “no” votes in what’s understood to be the predetermined election of delegates. Reporters also are on the lookout for the occasional real surprise in what legitimately is dubbed a rubber stamp parliament for its predictability. There was 1998, for instance, when Qiao Shi, then chairman of the standing committee of the NPC, was ousted in an unexpected twist to an otherwise expected government shakeup.

Where there used to be little interaction with the foreign press at the NPC, a growing top-down campaign to promote China’s image overseas is tangible, if not yet well-oiled. “Before there was no information, but now there’s a flood of useless information,” Erling says. “It’s a good test of a journalist’s skills.”

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