For years foreign correspondents have debated whether to boycott the pantomime press conferences Beijing uses to present a facade of transparency during its annual political summits.
On Tuesday one Chinese journalist hinted – in side-splitting fashion – at which side of the row she was on with an eye-roll so theatrical it set the internet alight and – in these politically treacherous times – may also have landed her in trouble.
The eye-roll in question came in response to a characteristically servile question at one of the heavily-scripted press conferences held on the sidelines of China’s annual parliament, the national people’s congress.
Zhang Huijun, a reporter from a US-based channel with apparent ties to the Chinese government, was there – clad in Communist party red – with the mission of ‘interrogating’ a Chinese official about one of Xi Jinping’s pet projects, the Belt and Road initiative.
“I am Zhang Huijun, executive director of American Multimedia Television USA,” the journalist began before launching into a 40-second monologue as dull as it was directionless.
“2018 is the 40th anniversary of reform and opening-up,” Zhang rambled at one point before declaring: “China will open wider to the outside world.”
Jeremy Paxman it certainly was not – but then Beijing-friendly reporters such as Zhang are often tasked with lobbing softball questions at leaders in a bid to convince the Chinese public and the world that they are watching transparency in action.
This time Liang Xiangya, a Shanghai-based financial journalist who was sitting to Zhang’s right, was unable to contain herself.
The blue-clad reporter eyed her red-jacketed neighbour with contempt before rolling her eyes and throwing her head backwards in an expression of unbridled disdain. “The woman next to me was being an idiot,” Liang reportedly told a colleague by way of explanation in a social media message that leaked online.
Liang’s performance was caught on camera, broadcast on television and immediately took social media by storm sparking comment and memes.
By Tuesday afternoon, when Communist party censors stepped in, the reporter’s name had become one of the most searched for terms on China’s answer to Twitter, Weibo. T-shirts and mobile phone covers celebrating Liang’s inadvertent and flamboyant show of dissent were selling on online stores such as Taobao.
The eye roll comes at one of the most delicate political moments in recent Chinese history, however, and may come back to haunt the journalist.
On Sunday, Xi Jinping set himself up as China’s leader for life, scrapping presidential term limits in a dramatic power play that experts believe could open up cavernous divisions within the Communist party elite.
On Tuesday morning Beijing had announced a major government overhaul that was overshadowed by Liang’s hammy performance.
Apparently desperate to stop the incident upsetting their intensely choreographed spectacle, authorities warned Chinese journalists to close their eyes to the eye roll.
“Urgent notice: all media personnel are prohibited from discussing the Two Sessions blue-clothed reporter incident on social media,” a leaked censorship directive said according to the China Digital Times.
“Anything already posted must be deleted. Without exception, websites must not hype the episode.”
Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, citing a fellow journalist, reported that Liang’s credentials to cover the congress had been cancelled. Rumours swirled that she had been fired; the journalist’s Weibo account had also been closed.
But in a sign of apparent support, Liang’s employer, Yicai Media Group, posted a video of its journalist posing a more streamline, 16-second question to China’s commerce minister.
“What is going on with Chinese free trade agreements with other countries? What is the relationship between China’s free trade negotiations and the multi-lateral trading system? And how do you think China’s multi-lateral trading system will develop in the future?” Liang asks, before signing off with a confident and concise: “Thank you!”
Additional reporting by Wang Xueying