For news reporters in Beijing, March is synonymous with "liang hui" (the two meetings), which refers to sessions of the National People's Congress (NPC) and the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
They have been convened concurrently in early March in most years, and Western media routinely say they are just "rubber stamping" what has already been decided.
The NPC, which has about 3,000 deputies and is often compared to a national assembly, is the supreme organ of state power in China. The CPPCC, a united front of political parties and groupings other than the Communist Party, is an advisory organ on government policies that has about 2,000 National Committee members. All of them assemble in Beijing for a fortnight or so during this time every year, giving the Chinese capital a tension-filled air. Police vehicles and officers are visible not only in the Great Hall of the People, the venue for the two meetings, and hotels where the deputies and committee members stay, but in every corner of downtown Beijing.
For reporters, the biggest focus of the two events is what the premier has to say in his government work report on the opening day of the NPC session.
It takes the premier about two hours to read the report aloud, which covers multiple fields including politics, the economy, society and diplomacy. It describes how the State Council (government) plans to steer the nation over the next year.
A particular focus of attention is the target economic growth rate. The entire globe is watching China, which has ascended to second place in the world in terms of economic power. Reporters from different nations spare no effort in trying to obtain the target figure as early as possible.
If my previous reporting and my memory are correct, printouts of the premier's government work report used to be handed out, until 2007, to NPC deputies the day before the opening of a session. In 2008, however, the printouts were handed out to the NPC deputies during a meeting held the day before the opening, but they were collected after the deputies had taken a look at them. The measure was presumably intended to prevent information from leaking prior to the opening day.
But reporters have continued their efforts to obtain the figures in advance. A colleague in the news industry told me that one young female reporter for a Western news agency was so eager to contact NPC deputies that she knocked on every door at the Beijing Hotel where the deputies were staying.
It's not hard to imagine how much the deputies were taken aback when they found a foreign woman turning up abruptly at their doors in the middle of the night.
Certainly, you may have an opportunity, if you are fortunate, to be leaked the percentage figure in advance through a personal connection. But what if the Chinese authorities were monitoring all those exchanges in some way or another?
I have never been able to obtain the figure ahead of time, although I have been to NPC sessions on numerous occasions. But I believe that some journalist must have been fortunate enough to obtain the information beforehand but have had to give up on reporting it for fear of compromising the news source.
An NPC session opened on March 5, and this year again, reporters had formed a long line in front of the Great Hall of the People even before the sun rose.
Premier Wen Jiabao was scheduled to begin reading the government work report slightly past 9 a.m. But the distributing of the full text started at 8 a.m.
On receiving the printouts, reporters began leafing through the pages, some seated on the floor and others lying on their stomach on the floor. As soon as they confirmed that the target economic growth rate was 7.5 percent, down for the first time in eight years from "around 8 percent," they began notifying their head offices and bureaus on their cellphones. One reporter went dashing down the stairs to return to his post.
The "figure hunt" is only one of the two struggles that journalists face at the two meetings. The other is the hunt for prime spots by camera crews.
On the opening day of an NPC session, second-floor seats are allotted to camera crews and third-floor seats to reporters at the Great Hall of the People. But the camera crews need to be seated on the front row of the second-floor seats if they wish to easily use their long and heavy telephoto lenses to take photos.
For that reason, camera crews, carrying heavy equipment in their arms, dash up to the second floor in the Great Hall of the People as soon as a gate is opened on the first day of a session, and they spread their tripods to secure positions for their cameras.
It is said that parents are engaged in harder struggles every year over the prime vantage points to take pictures from during kindergarten and elementary school sports festivals in Japan. But the struggles of the camera crews here are deadly serious.
By contrast, media writers like myself, who don't have to bother with fighting over space, have looked with a sense of awe at the backs of the cameramen who are dashing to the second floor every year in the Great Hall of the People, some of them tottering and stumbling during their run down the red carpets to secure their spots.
That is not to say that reporters on the third floor are just idling their time away while they listen to the two-hour government work report. The two meetings provide precious opportunities to see members of the highest echelons of Beijing's leadership, including the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee at the top rung of the Communist Party of China, all together in one place.
Some reporters use high-magnification binoculars to capture the faintest expressions and gestures of the senior leaders lined up on the stand. Others are busy perusing the text of the government work report to dig out anything significant or unusual.
During this year's NPC session, President Hu Jintao, seated in the center of the leaders' stand, was leafing through the pages of the government work report and using a red pen to underscore text as he listened to Wen reading it aloud. The image was not so much that of the highest leader of a superpower than of a diligent student.
Some of the Politburo members, lined up on both sides of Hu, were perfunctorily leafing through pages, whereas others just stared straight ahead and joined their colleagues in clapping their hands from time to time.
A quinquennial National Congress of the Communist Party of China is scheduled this autumn. That National Congress will also be the venue of a decennial change of power.
Plausible observations and conjecture were flowing back and forth over the nomination of personnel for the highest echelons.
On the surface, the expressions of the senior party officials on the leaders' stand differed little from how they looked in normal years. Behind the scenes of the two meetings, however, deals were certainly being made and power struggles being fought.
Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.
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