May 31, 2023

At Beijing Press Conferences, the Questions Tell Their Own Story

BEIJING — The first question at the Olympics daily news conference on Saturday came from a German reporter, and anyone could have guessed what he would ask.

“On the Kamila Valieva case,” the reporter began, referring to the teenage figure skater in the middle of the latest Russian doping scandal, “can you explain why it took six weeks for the positive test result to come to light?”

The second question went to a reporter from Xinhua, the official news agency of China, and the discourse went, well, somewhere else.

“What is the favorite dish among the athletes?” the Chinese reporter asked. “Do you have a specific number for how many roast ducks are being served?”

On this went. There were 12 questions asked in English, and 11 were about the doping scandal. There were seven questions asked in Chinese, and they were about, basically, anything else.

It was, in one neat hour, a perfect encapsulation of the parallel approach to reporting on the Games inside the Olympic bubble. Each morning inside a cavernous hall, reporters from outside outlets outside China pepper the International Olympic Committee spokesman with often indelicate questions about what is awry. In between, domestic reporters query his Chinese counterparts about all that is well.

The two press corps, of course, have different aims, and limitations. But rarely are they so starkly juxtaposed, and for such an extended period, as they have been at these Games.

“The whole purpose of the media here is different,” said Mark Dreyer, a Beijing-based analyst for China Sports Insider. “In the West, it’s to hold people to account, expose lies, corruption, all that stuff, as well as report news. Here, it’s to tell China’s story. If it’s not officially government controlled, it’s government approved. And if you’re too far from that line, you get in trouble.”

China has made small concessions to accommodate the Olympic apparatus. People on the Olympic grounds, for example, enjoy “barrier-free internet,” allowing them to circumvent the country’s normal firewall and access websites and online platforms most Chinese cannot.

Still, in most cases, it is as if the two press corps are dancing side by side, inside the same cramped ballroom, to two different songs.

The tone was set at the opening news conference of the Games, when reporters customarily fire questions about various controversies at the president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach.

First, though, came a question from China Central Television, the state broadcaster. “After two years of dark times,” the reporter asked, “do you feel the coming of spring?”

The whiplash was palpable when a reporter from Reuters then stepped to the microphone to ask Bach about his plans to meet Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis player who disappeared from public life for weeks after accusing a top government official of sexual assault (Bach did meet her). Stories about Peng continue to be censored in China.

The diverging sensibilities have been on display at the Olympic venues, too. On Thursday night, after China lost to the United States in hockey, a reporter asked a player from the Chinese team, which has several naturalized players, how he felt about playing alongside his “foreign national teammates.”

A Chinese reporter turned, surprised. “You can’t say foreign nationals,” she said.

Similarly, at Saturday’s I.O.C. news conference, after three consecutive questions from international reporters pressing Olympic officials about the Valieva doping case, a Chinese reporter changed the tone.

“There are a lot of super performances by the athletes, a lot of Olympic records are being broken,” she said. “Is this good performance related to the support of the Olympic villages, the good service to the athletes?”

You can guess the answer.

The Western journalists have procured few answers to their sensitive queries. The Chinese journalists have often received flowing, paragraph-long responses to theirs. (Chinese media outlets, Dreyer said, often adhere to requests to submit questions before officials are made available for interviews.)

On Saturday morning, a Chinese reporter asked Zhao Weidong, the spokesman for the host committee, if he had any comment about the fact that some athletes had performed well and some had not.

“I want to share with you a historical story on Olympic history …,” Zhao began, the start of a two-and-a-half-minute soliloquy that spun a tale from the 1908 Olympics into a lesson on the importance of mutual respect.

The reporter had grooved a fastball down the middle of the plate, and Zhao had slammed it out of the park.

The session, though, ended with a pleasant surprise.

Granted the last question, a reporter for The Associated Press stepped to the microphone, addressed the Chinese spokesman, and, surprise, asked about food: Were there kosher and halal options at the athletes’ village?

These reporters’ interests could align sometimes, after all.

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