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That time I split my pants open at the Great Hall of the People

I
n 2015, I was chased around a Tianjin railway station by four goons and ended up at the National People's Congress asking Premier Li Keqiang about a censored film about the environment.
3 months ago
Matt Sheehan
Illustration by Jeanette Lee

I was never planning on attending 2015’s liang hui, the annual “Two Sessions” series of political gatherings in Beijing. The meetings in question are the largely ceremonial National People’s Congress (NPC), and the even-more-ceremonial Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). If U.S. party conventions are the Broadway of American political theater, liang hui is an uninspired table-read of Soviet dramas.

The NPC culminates in a press conference held by the premier, a rare chance for foreign media to directly address questions to him. Accomplished Politburo watchers can parse the subtle tweaks in the premier’s phrasing, but I never took much interest in the event. As the China correspondent for Huffington Post, my reporting tended to focus on culture and the everyday lives of Chinese people. Liang hui felt like a world away.

That March, I first learned that I’d have the honor of attending Premier Li Keqiang’s press conference while being chased around the Tianjin train station by four plainclothes goons.

How to shake a tail while talking to the Foreign Ministry

It was one week before the event, and that morning, I’d hopped on the Beijing-Tianjin high-speed train to scope out a protest in Tianmu Village 天穆村, on the northern outskirts of Tianjin. Locals there had taken to the streets to demand the ouster of Mu Xiangyou 穆祥友, the village Party Secretary and a delegate at the National People’s Congress. Protesters accused him of selling communally owned land for private profit, and of running village politics like an organized crime syndicate.

Mu Xiangyou at the National People’s Congress.

I’d gotten in touch with one of the protesters, and he’d invited me out to Tianmu the next morning. He said he would meet me at the train station, provide me with documentation for their claims, and even let me spend the night at his home in the village.

So the following morning, I hauled myself across town to Beijing South Station and caught an early train to Tianjin. As I stepped off the train and onto the platform, my phone buzzed with a message from my contact: “I’m at the police station now. I will call you later.”

That’s a gut-wrenching moment for any reporter. Walking down the tunnel toward the station’s exit, I both regretted coming and felt more determined to finish the job.

Halfway down the causeway, something over my shoulder caught my attention. Turning to the left, I saw a beefy Chinese man hustling to conceal a cell phone camera in his armpit. I’m guilty of plenty of blind spots when it comes to China, but as a tall white man who spends lots of time in third-tier cities, I have a spider sense for when someone is secretly taking a picture of me.

Attempting to distinguish between an innocent fanboy and state-sponsored surveillance, I picked up my pace. The man, followed by three accomplices, half-jogged to keep up with my long strides. When I arrived at the exit carousel, I took a half-step through the gate, then doubled back into the causeway. The move worked, sending one of my stalkers to the opposite side of the one-way carousel.

Three remained. Exiting the station, I managed to lose another when he unwisely boarded an escalator and I reversed down some stairs. I twisted through the winding streets and alleys around the station. Left, left, right, backtrack, hide behind a car…left, left.

As I scanned the horizon for the remaining two guys, my phone started vibrating. It was a Beijing number, but not one I recognized.

Wei?

“Hello, Mr. Matthew? This is Beth. Are you in Beijing?”

Beth was my main handler at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She oversaw a suspenseful eight-month wait for my first journalist visa, and recently chaperoned my renewal.

“Hi Beth, no…actually, I’m not in Beijing right now.”

Beth rarely called me, and it was an unusual question to lead with. I hedged on giving my exact location, trying to tease out whether Beth was supervising this dragnet from afar. Her next question surprised me:

“If you could ask a question to Premier Li Keqiang at next week’s press conference, what would you ask?”

That caught me off-balance. I’d already missed the deadline to register for liang hui and had no intention of going. Racking my brain for intelligent-sounding questions, I came up empty. I asked her if I could send her something by email. She instructed me to send along a list of three questions I’d like to ask, ASAP.
I hung up, baffled. How could they be so thirsty for questions that they were ringing me up?

A village protest

I was yanked back into the moment at the sight of one of the men following me. I ducked into a subway station and did my best Jason Bourne: Hop on a train, ride it one stop, wait until the doors start to close, hop off and board a train going in the opposite direction. I was pretty sure I’d lost them. After a few stops, I walked out of the station and jumped into a cab. I told the driver to take me to the Tianmu Village Party Committee headquarters.

On the ride over, I tried messaging my contact in the village again. No response.

When we arrived, I was surprised to see a few hundred people gathered in front of the Party headquarters. Tianmu is a village predominantly inhabited by Hui, a Muslim ethnic minority that traces its roots to Silk Road traders; some protesters were sporting the white skullcaps worn by many Hui Chinese. Some used wooden poles to hold aloft banners calling on central government leaders to investigate the village Party Secretary. But there were no chants and no speeches, just a large crowd facing an ugly building.

Unsure of what to expect, I opened the cab door and stepped out into the crowd. I tried to stay low key, but unfortunately, there’s just nothing discrete about a tall white guy infiltrating a Chinese protest. Murmurs rippled through the crowd. I twisted my face into a goofy grin.

That smile vanished quickly. I hadn’t been in the crowd for more than 30 seconds when I was surrounded by a group of six men. They grabbed my jacket sleeves and hustled me backward toward a car waiting with its door open. The ringleader was barking questions at me, demanding to know who I was and why I was there. I threw the question back at him, and he replied that he was a member of the Village Party Committee.

The tussle continued — I didn’t know what the endgame was, but I knew I didn’t want to get in that car. At this point, a group of sturdy middle-aged women came to my rescue, wedging between the men and me. Wagging their fingers and shouting at the men, they cleared a path for me to move back into the crowd.

“Take pictures!” one of them shouted.

Villagers gathered outside the Tianmu Village Party headquarters.

I took a few steps and a few deep breaths, but my fingers were shaking as I took my camera from its case. A man with slick black hair slid next to me. He wasn’t wearing a uniform, but he didn’t need to; he carried an air of authority and control.

“Don’t do anything,” he said, not looking at me. “Don’t cause a disturbance.”

I took his advice and froze. Before I was able to take a single picture, a uniformed police officer approached and demanded, in English, that I follow him to the police station in order to “verify my credentials.” I explained that this wasn’t necessary, but he insisted. I was unsure of what to do, but decided resisting arrest was likely unwise. He led me to his police car. I was plopped in the middle of the backseat, and two plainclothes men piled in on either side of me, including the man who warned me not to cause a disturbance. We jumped on the highway and headed north, away from the city center.

Taken away by the police

During my escape at the train station, adrenaline was coursing through my body, but in the police car, I just felt scared and alone.

Most foreign journalists working in China are ensconced in a bureau staffed with editors, fellow reporters, translators, and local fixers. If things get tense in the field, there’s a team that knows where they are and how to bail them out. But I was almost always flying solo. My closest editors were across the Pacific, and I only worked with translators in regions with incomprehensible dialects. My “Beijing bureau” was a small, wooden table at a mother-and-toddler café near my house called Let’s Lego! Sometimes I bounced ideas off the baristas. My most searing prose came while listening to yuppie moms singing “The Eensy Weensy Spider” during ukulele class.

No one in the world knew I was smushed in the backseat of a police car. So as our ride sped through the industrial outskirts of Tianjin, I frantically sent WeChat messages with my location to an American friend. I spammed him with photos and any geographic detail I could gather, trying to leave behind a trail of digital breadcrumbs.

I never thought of the journalism I did at Let’s Lego! as a threat to the halls of power in Beijing — for that, you needed resources and real investigative chops that I didn’t have. I mostly stuck to what I had access to: slow trains, coal towns, young people.

But I always felt the most like a target when reporting at the village level. Nothing I could unearth in Beijing was putting Xi Jinping in jeopardy. But a damning article about a village Party chief carried different consequences. That village official may be expendable to the higher-ups: If he became enough of an embarrassment, they could dispose of him with corruption charges. To reporters, it would be just another “fly” swatted in the anti-corruption campaign. But to the implicated Party chief, that one article could mean the difference between swimming in wealth or rotting behind bars. Put any person in that position and there’s no telling what they might do.

After 15 minutes, our car stopped at a police station in an industrial park. They marched me upstairs to a dim office. Inside, there was a large leather couch and watercolor paintings of fish hanging from the green walls. They poured weak tea into paper cups.

The plainclothes cop who rode with me was bristly and demanded to see my credentials. I handed them over, along with Beth’s business card at the ministry. He eyed them with suspicion and went next door to make a call.

While we waited for his return, the young English-speaking cop apologized for the hassle. I knew it wasn’t his fault, but I also wasn’t in the mood to make nice. Several minutes later, the other cop returned, looking peeved. Beth had backed me up and told him that I was free to report in Tianjin.

He changed tactics: Yes, I theoretically could report in the village, but it was their obligation to protect my safety. Before letting me go, I had to speak with the local propaganda officials. They were on their way over now. Thirty minutes of excruciating small talk later, in rushed a middle-aged woman from the propaganda bureau, Ms. Liu. Clearly frazzled, she nevertheless put on a smile and welcomed me to their little corner of Tianjin.

Tianmu Village Party headquarters during the protests in 2015.

For over an hour, we argued in circles. I told the group that there was no reason to detain me, and I planned to promptly return to the protests. They threw up a succession of reasons why that was impossible: People at the protest didn’t want you there (“I don’t think that’s true,” I replied); it would be dangerous for you to return (“I’ll take my chances”); you have no way of getting back there (“I can figure it out”).

They kept offering to take me back to the train station, but I declined. Every time I stood up to leave, they fussed until I sat back down. Finally, Ms. Liu offered her version of a compromise: If she could get representatives from the Village Party Committee to speak with me, would I then go back to Beijing?

Seeing no other way out of this stalemate, I agreed. I figured the village officials wouldn’t reveal anything new, but they would at least be good for a quote telling me to get out of town.

While Ms. Liu busied herself making arrangements in the next room, I chatted with the young cop. His English was pretty damn good, but he was shy about using it. He grew up in Tianjin, earned a master’s degree in England, and returned home to work in the Public Security Bureau. He seemed embarrassed about the situation.

Over the course of these conversations, my anxiety dissipated. Yes, this song-and-dance was frustrating, but none of these PR flacks or industrial-park cops appeared ready to assault or kidnap me.

Things get nasty

When Ms. Liu returned, behind her were two men, one short and built like a barrel, the other tall and thin. I stood up to greet them. They were dressed like the many village men who had become urbanites by osmosis: dirty dress loafers, dark slacks, and blazers made of glistening cheap fabric. Both men wore small white skullcaps. Scanning the room with suspicion, the men shifted from one worn loafer to the other.

Ms. Liu gestured toward the tall man with a smile.

“This man is from the Village Party Committee,” she said. “He will talk to you.”

The man hesitated for a minute, then spoke up in a quiet voice.

“This is a problem within the village and we’ll resolve it within the village. It has nothing to do with you and you’re not welcome here.”

I opened up my notebook and began to scribble, but the moment my pen touched the paper, the barrel-chested man exploded.

“Who are you?! Where are you from? What the hell is he writing in that notebook?!?”

I shut the notebook and threw up my hands.

“Look, sorry, it’s a misunderstanding. I don’t have to write anything down.”

But he wasn’t assuaged. He took a step closer, shouting at me from across the tea table.

“You’re not welcome here! Do you hear me?!?”

Ms. Liu tried to calm the man, grabbing his upraised arm and talking him down. Instead he redirected his rage toward her, snarling in her face and pushing her until she was backed up against a desk in the corner. One of the cops was yelling at the man, saying over and over that she was with the local government.

“I don’t give a fuck!!”

I locked eyes with the young cop and he gestured toward the door opposite a cowering Ms. Liu and her abuser. We slipped out of the room at the same time three new policemen rushed in. They shut the door behind them; all I could hear was a muffled shouting match. The door opened just long enough for Ms. Liu to run out in tears, and then slammed shut again. I stood beside the young cop in the stairwell, my mind spinning.

The past minute had shattered my mental model for Tianmu officialdom. I’d envisioned the cops, propaganda officials, and village party committee as a united front, members of one solid Soviet Bloc. But then the squat fellow went all Mao on Ms. Liu’s Khrushchev. Alliances were fracturing and I wanted out.

I turned to the young cop and told him I was ready to go to the train station. Two policemen squeezed out of the office. They huddled with my new bodyguard. Though they were speaking in hushed tones, it was a small staircase and I could overhear them.

The man locked in the room was making phone calls, and the policemen believed he was sending men to block key roads to the train station. There were only a few roads out of the industrial park we were in, and if his men managed to head us off, “there’s no telling what would happen.”

Seeing the fear flash across their faces, my imagination was off to the races. I visualized a cross between the Boxer Rebellion and Black Hawk Down. I was shit-brick terrified.

The group turned toward me and told me to follow another officer downstairs to a waiting van. I told them that I wanted the young cop to come with me. His superiors looked back and forth between us and nodded their approval. We hustled down the staircase and into a beige van.

The driver threw the van into high gear and we were off. As we weaved our way out of the industrial park, my cop received a steady stream of phone calls. He told the driver which roads to take and which ones to avoid. We screamed through the northern outskirts of Tianjin, slowing a bit as we followed the Haihe River through the city proper. Pulling up to a public square on the south side of the train station, the driver parked with two wheels up on the curb. We half-walked, half-jogged across the square, eyes constantly scanning the crowds milling around the entrance.

My entourage flashed badges to hustle me past security and ticketing lines. I directed an apologetic grimace at the migrant workers waiting in line. I’m sure they assumed it was just another instance of white-man-in-China privilege. They were not entirely wrong.

We cruised into the station and onto the train platform. My handlers scanned the adjacent train cars and escorted me to my seat. I asked them to promise that they wouldn’t share any of my information with the man in the office. They agreed and stepped off the train. The train slid into motion. They smiled at me and waved good-bye.

Questions for the premier

Back at my apartment in Beijing, I flopped onto my bed. What the hell just happened in that office? Was I actually in danger? Could I still be in danger? Replaying the day in my head, I thought of my contact in the village. I’d been calling and texting him throughout the day, but heard nothing.

I remembered that I had promised Beth three questions for Premier Li. Fundamentally, the annual press conference is a scripted affair. Moderators appear to be picking from a crowd of eager journalists, all waving to get their attention, but the questions are screened in advance, and the vast majority are softballs.

Foreign journalists are ambivalent about the process, with some choosing to boycott. Others, given the chance to directly address a Chinese leader, skewer them on sensitive topics, asking questions for which there’s no hope of getting an answer.

I don’t like softballs or grandstanding, so I opt for a middle ground: tough questions, but ones that don’t unnecessarily poke a finger in Li’s eye. My three questions covered social stability in the context of industrial layoffs, the economic implications of internet controls, and the topic that had fascinated me of late: the hyper-viral pollution documentary Under The Dome, produced by Chai Jing 柴静, a former investigative journalist for state TV [here is a Sinica Podcast about the film].

Filmed in the style of An Inconvenient Truth, Under the Dome is a 104-minute examination of China’s pollution woes. With narration delivered by Chai in a style similar to a TED Talk, the film weaves together a moving story about Chai Jing’s young daughter with a highly detailed look at the history, science, and politics of China’s air pollution.

Chai casts massive state-owned oil and gas companies as the key villains, arguing that they had abused their power to neuter environmental regulations. Naming and shaming the state-owned oil companies is a bold move. PetroChina and Sinopec are two of China’s biggest companies. Notoriously corrupt and politically powerful, their tentacles stretch into all corners of Chinese society.

The movie had dropped like a bombshell one week before I went to Tianmu, racking up over 100 million views over the weekend. It was the buzz of conversations on the street and the internet, and it initially received a glowing reception in official state media. In the days after its release, I contributed to a project that was crowdsourcing English subtitles for the film. China’s new minister of the environment said it reminded him of Silent Spring, the hit 1962 environmental science book by Rachel Carson that documented the environmental destruction caused by indiscriminate use of pesticides.

And then, after four days and 300 million views, Chinese censors ordered the film taken down and discussion of it censored. Chinese citizens were whiplashed. The film had taken the country by storm, then vanished just as quickly.

Many commentators viewed this as proof that Chinese leaders couldn’t handle the film, but I read it differently: If Xi’s agenda was a Venn diagram, Under the Dome stood right at its center. Xi had called out corruption, pollution, and economic stagnation as the three scourges on Chinese society. For three years, he had directed corruption investigations like a cudgel to wipe out obstinate officials whom he deemed obstacles to reform.

Of course, his chief political rivals just so happened to lead some of China’s most corrupt, polluting, and stagnant industries: coal and oil. Zhou Yongkang 周永康, an ex-Politburo member and architect of the security state, spent decades building a power base in PetroChina’s parent company, CNPC. Ling Jihua 令计划, a top aide to Hu Jintao, had deep-rooted family and patronage networks in China’s coal heartland of Shanxi.  In 2014, both men became some of the highest-ranking leaders ever taken down on corruption charges.

What Chai Jing did in Under the Dome was spin a damning narrative about these industries, and tie it up with a bow. The film explained why Chinese people’s lungs and pocketbooks were suffering, and it directed all of the outrage at Xi’s rivals. Xi couldn’t have done it better if he had directed the film himself.

The sudden censoring of Under the Dome wasn’t about what the film said, but who got to say it. Chai was the perfect messenger to get the story out, but Xi’s cohort wanted to make sure she didn’t turn her fame into an independent source of power.

I’d been tracing these strands at the grassroots for the past six months, visiting run-down coal villages and steel towns, victims of both economic restructuring and environmental crackdowns. Those towns stuck with me, and they struck me as core to figuring out where China was going.

So, facing my computer screen on that Friday afternoon, I wrote out my third question:

In Chai Jing’s recent documentary Under the Dome, she argues that PetroChina and Sinopec are obstructing the setting and enforcement of environmental standards, especially in terms of gasoline standards and natural gas. Do you believe these companies are obstructing environmental enforcement, and if so, what will the central government do to break through that obstruction?

Hitting send, I knew the question had no chance of being picked. It shouted out a banned documentary and laid down the gauntlet on factional politics. Even if it did jive with the Xi agenda, they wouldn’t let those words be spoken live on national television. I likely wouldn’t get to see the Great Hall of the People, but I was fine with that.

After I snapped shut my laptop, my phone buzzed. It was a message from my contact in the village. He had been held at the police station all day, but he was out now. He said he was doing all right. We promised to stay in touch. I went to the kitchen, cracked a Yanjing, and took a deep gulp of warm beer.

A surprising phone call

By Wednesday, I had forgotten all about the questions I’d sent to Beth. But that afternoon, my WeChat buzzed with a message.

“Thank you for your questions, Mr. Matthew. You are invited to ask the third question during Premier Li’s press conference. Come to the NPC media center by Saturday to get your credentials.”

I checked my email outbox — the third question was the one about Under the Dome. I read and reread the message and the email in disbelief. Could this possibly be right? By this point, the film and the discussion of it had been thoroughly scrubbed from all sites, except for Caixin, a business news site with ties to China’s political elite.

Unsure of what to think, I translated my question into Chinese and began rehearsing. I asked two former Chinese teachers to go over the question with me before the press conference on Sunday. I would be directly addressing one of the most powerful men in the world on live national TV, and I didn’t want to fuck it up.

On Saturday, I picked up my credentials, then met my teachers at a café. They tweaked my grammar on fuel-economy standards and told me where to pause. They were equally baffled that my question was approved, but wished me luck.

I went straight from the café to meet some friends in the hutongs. Spring was creeping into Beijing after a frigid and polluted winter. We celebrated with a healthy amount of drinking.

The pants

When my alarm rang at 6:30 a.m. the next morning, my body begged to stay put. I mind-over-mattered my way out of bed, and opened my closet. I didn’t currently own a suit, so I grabbed a wrinkled blue button-down shirt and dark khaki pants out of the closet. I gathered the essentials — notebook, keys, wallet, phone — and threw on my dad’s worn leather jacket.

When I directed the cabby to the Great Hall of the People, he asked if I would be at the press conference. I told him I would, and that I might even ask a question. He was thrilled. I was not.

All week, I had nursed a lingering fear that there had been a miscommunication. They must have meant a different question. Or meant to send that to a different journalist. If I had misunderstood Beth, the ministry would think that I switched the question on purpose. Whether or not I was right about the factional politics, the leadership took pains not to flaunt divisions in the party-state.

Puzzling out reasons for allowing the question, all I could come up with was that it gave Li a platform to endorse the film and throw PetroChina under the bus. Zhou Yongkang was already behind bars and corruption investigations had wreaked havoc on the company. Maybe the question was a chance for Li to essentially announce the execution of PetroChina under the guise of environmental stewardship.

Whatever was going on, these were all heavy hitters, and I feared my visa would become collateral damage.

The towering white pillars of the Great Hall of the People flanked Tiananmen Square to the west. Once past security, I roamed the dome-ceilinged rooms and found my way to the hall reserved for the press conference. At the front, an elevated platform contained a desk for Premier Li and his colleagues. Dozens of rows of red velvet-covered chairs were arranged facing the stage, and behind them stood hundreds of video teams and photographers with absurdly large lenses.

I found my seat on the right side, put down my jacket and notebook, and started pacing around the room. I repeated the question under my breath and people-watched for my journalism heroes. Going over the Chinese names of PetroChina and Sinopec for the tenth time — I always mixed the two up — I caught sight of someone waving at me. Squinting through the crowd, I saw it was Beth’s boss at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She was instrumental in getting my visa through, and had always been friendly.

I smiled and started walking in her direction, my right hand absent-mindedly fiddling with the button on my back pocket. And then I felt it. A loose thread, a frayed edge. Walking toward the woman, my fingers frantically traced the fault line.

My smile turned to plastic and my eyes grew wide as it dawned on me. My pants were sporting a Grade-A tear, maybe six inches north to south. My back pocket was hanging out, and my gray Costco boxers were on display for my colleagues and the cameras.

I greeted Beth’s boss, but my mind was retracing my steps across the hall to try to keep track of everyone I had just flashed. I nodded my way through our short conversation. The only thing I processed was her final reminder: “Don’t forget to raise your hand high during the questions so that you’ll get picked!”

I clasped my two hands together behind my back to cover the hole and made a beeline for the bathroom. Partway there, I was intercepted by Beth herself. She was excited for the presser, and stuck her right hand out to shake mine. Pulling my right hand out from behind my back meant exposing the heart of the tear. To make up ground with my left hand, I was forced to dip my left shoulder, arch my spine, and lean back slightly, all while extending my right hand forward. It looked more like a Twister move than a handshake.

My mind blotted out the conversation, then I booked it for the back wall, sliding along sideways until I got into the bathroom. Once in a stall, I assessed the damage. The tear stretched from the top of my right pocket down to my upper thigh. It was big enough to put my fist through. I remembered where it came from. Earlier in the week, I had found myself in a deep glute stretch outside of a subway station, really leaning into it with my foot on an elevated ramp. I’d heard a pop and felt a little bust in the seam. But when I got home, I just tossed the pants right back into the closet.

Out in the hall, I walked quickly and avoided eye contact. Back at my seat, I grabbed my dad’s leather jacket and strapped it around my waist, covering my backside down to my knees. The worn-down leather kept slipping, so I double-knotted it above my belly button.

The ambient chatter swelled, and then I saw Premier Li Keqiang stride onto the stage, waving to the cameras. After some introductory remarks, the questioning began.

I was secretly hoping they had forgotten about me. I didn’t know what I was more nervous about: drawing a total blank when addressing the premier, being kicked out of the country, or losing my jacket and showing millions of people the underwear my mom still bought me.

When the moderator solicited new questions, the Chinese journalists all stood up and waved, and I followed suit. But each time I sat back down, I could hear the tear chewing up new fabric. It had expanded past the seam and entered the open waters of the pant leg. If it kept heading south, it would soon be too big for my leather fig leaf.

Finally, while waggling my notebook above the crowd, I heard my name announced over the loudspeaker. The crowd around me sank into their seats and I was handed a microphone. I took a deep breath and launched into the question, tip-toeing through a minefield of potential mispronunciations. I stumbled a bit, but managed to spit it all out, including the four key pronouns: Chai Jing, Under the Dome, PetroChina and Sinopec.

Handing back the microphone I sat down and stared at my notebook. The translator restated the question in English, using all the key phrases. Li, almost smiling, began his answer. He talked about how he had ‘declared war’ on pollution at a previous NPC. He said that despite government efforts, the results hadn’t lived up to the people’s expectations. He said the government will strictly enforce the new environmental policy, and that they will hunt down all those who interfere with or violate these policies.

It was tough talk, but to my ears it was no different than the tough talk of years past. Most importantly, in his lengthy answer he never mentioned Chai Jing, the documentary, or the oil companies. As soon as Li finished, an Australian reporter in the row in front of me turned around:

“Did you change your question? Was what you asked approved?”

I nodded. The presser continued, but my mind was tying itself in knots.

What just happened? Why did they want me to ask that question if Premier Li wasn’t really going to answer it? Had I missed something in what he said, or was it possible this was all a mistake?

When the press conference adjourned, a small gaggle of Chinese and foreign reporters surrounded me, asking me about the question: Was it approved? What did I think of Li’s response? My answers were truthful but intentionally vague. A reporter from the People’s Daily asked to take a picture of me holding the logo of the paper’s Weibo account, but I declined.

I excused myself and headed for the exits. On the way out I ran into Beth, and she told me I did well. Descending the white stone steps outside the Great Hall of the People, I looked at my phone. It had been blowing up for the past hour, with friends from around the country sending me pictures and videos of my face on their TV screens. I waved down a cab and cruised home.

Up in my apartment, I finally untied the leather jacket and inspected the damage. The tear had cut its way north to my belt line and south to the back of my knee. I bent over, maneuvered my phone behind my back and snapped a photo. I tweeted the picture out and described my wardrobe malfunction.

Within a minute, veteran New York Times reporter Chris Buckley replied on Twitter: “You’ll regret sharing this with the world.”

Looking out my window onto Beijing’s Chaoyang District, I was relieved. Between the language, the tear, and the subject matter, I felt like I had just skipped through a minefield unharmed. But there was a nagging sensation, like when you hear all of a joke except the punchline. I believed the significance of the question lay in the proper nouns — the naming of Chai Jing and her nemeses — but Li had ignored those and just regurgitated officialese.

That evening I struggled to write up an article on the event. The New York Times already had a piece out that mentioned my question, but I couldn’t figure out whether anything meaningful actually happened. I eventually gave up, stranding a few paragraphs in a Word document.

The next day my editor in New York was baffled as to why I hadn’t published anything. She (correctly) told me to put something together quickly. I was procrastinating, flicking through Twitter, when a tweet from the People’s Daily caught my eye:

I sprang to attention, searching Baidu for mention of the case. On the website of the Party’s corruption watchdog, I found a short notice — just 34 characters — announcing the investigation of Liao Yongyuan, the general manager of CNPC. Liao had been nicknamed CNPC’s “Northwest Tiger” for his exploits in the oil fields of China’s far western deserts. He was now likely in shackles at an undisclosed location.

There it was:. Li’s actual answer to my question.

He had said nothing direct because he didn’t need to. A foreign reporter asking the question provided the perfect veneer of deniability for the administration. No one could accuse Li of endorsing the film or throwing PetroChina under the bus, but those words were still broadcast on national TV.

Xi and Co. placed the horse’s head in the bed, but let someone else be the messenger.

I sat down to write.

Two years later

Exactly two years have passed since that press conference.

Protests have continued on and off in Tianmu Village. My contact continued to post about the protests on WeChat, and he once sent me a picture of a man’s arm with a deep gash. He said thugs had come to his house and slashed one family member with a knife.

Mu Xiangyou is still the party chief of Tianmu Village, but he hasn’t shown up in accounts of NPC delegates since 2015.

After releasing Under the Dome, Chai Jing disappeared from the public eye. Later that year Time magazine named her one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People, but she hasn’t been seen or heard from since before the press conference.

I had no problems renewing my visa, but I moved back to California last year, in the middle of the liang hui 2016.

This January, Liao Yongyuan, the “northwest tiger” of CNPC, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Court records accused him of accepting 13,394,101.73 RMB in bribes.

On Wednesday, Li Keqiang will once again hold his annual press conference at The Great Hall of the People.

———

Below is a recording of a conversation between SupChina’s Kaiser’s Kuo and Matt Sheehan about the events described in this article.

By Matt Sheehan
Matt Sheehan writes and consults on topics connecting China and California. He worked as the China correspondent for the Huffington Post from 2014 to 2016, and lived in the country for over five years.
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