Giant on the move
“Getting to know”, Beijing style
This story in China’s official English-language newspaper on Monday got me thinking about the number of speeches I have sat through over the last two years and how the local style of press conference is going to go down when 30,000 foreign media descend on Beijing in August.
It all sounds so cosy on the invitation. “Getting to Know – Mr Liu Jian”, “an unscripted, casual, face-to-face dialogue with a BOCOG department director. Biscuits, coffee and tea will be served.”
Great, the uninitiated might think, a chance to become acquainted with one of the senior officials preparing for the biggest sporting event in Chinese history and a mid-morning snack to boot.
The reality is somewhat different. Fifty-plus journalists gather in a cavernous hotel meeting room where six besuited officials and a translator sit facing them from a long table set along the back wall.
Mr Liu, in charge of the volunteer programme and the youngest of the department heads at the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, begins his introduction shortly after 9:30 am.
As befits the head of the Beijing Communist Youth League, his speech is peppered with a few Party favourites — “This is a six plus one project”, “preparations are smoothly progressing” and “this will be done with the mutual understanding of the people”.
The journalists perk up when Liu pauses after just 17 minutes, but his hesitation is just to mark the end of the “general picture” briefing and, before they can raise their pens from their pads, he is ploughing on with details of the training of the 100,000 volunteers.
More than 40 long minutes have passed since the start of the “dialogue” when Liu shuffles his papers and declares an end to his “brief introduction”. The Q&A can begin.
To be fair, the “Getting to Know”session is a huge improvement on the BOCOG press conferences I attended when I first arrived in Beijing to cover the Games’ preparations back in February 2006.
Then, two or three officials would give speeches, often verbatim readings of a handout everybody received when they walked through the door, leaving time for only two or three questions in the allocated hour.
Since then, the BOCOG media department has solicited and been receptive to suggested improvements and the result is shorter “introductions”, more questions and the “Getting to Know” sessions.
What they can’t change, however, is the mindset of Chinese officialdom — traditionally suspicious of foreign media and reluctant to deviate from the lecturing style.
My raised hand solicits a nod, it’s my chance to pose a question.
I choose what I think is a straightforward query — “How many hours of training will the volunteers receive before the Games?”.
Mr Liu gestures towards his colleague at the far end of the table:
“Just now Mr Liu has briefed you on the contents of the training, which are general training, speciality training, venue training and on-the-spot training,” he said.
“Most of them have passed through the professional training and in the next stage we’ll focus on communication, manners, attitude and physical constitution. In the first phase we relied on the training on campus and in the future it will be in the venues and on the spot.”
Another half an hour of similarly opaque answers follows and the session is over. The journalists walk out exchanging shrugs and jokes about racing back to the office to file urgent reports.
I didn’t even get a biscuit.
Nick Mulvenney, pictured here on the official Beijing Olympic Web site at an earlier BOCOG press conference, is Sports Correspondent, China.
The picture of a press conference from October last year was taken by David Gray.