The first press conference of this year's session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) was asked to clarify the status of Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the Political Bureau Standing Committee of the CPC Central Committee on Sunday.
In response to a question raised by a reporter from the South China Morning Post, the spokesman for the country's top political advisory body stressed that his information on Zhou came from media sources, adding that "anyone who violates the law and Party discipline will be investigated and dealt with severely, no matter who he is or how high-level his position." Reporters responded with laughter when the spokesman added, "I'm answering your question this way. I bet you know what I mean."
Major Chinese cities in recent days have probably been filled with various speculations about Zhou. Apart from published reports on illegal business operations by Zhou Bin, Zhou's eldest son, mainland media have also attributed great significance to the investigation into several senior officials from Sichuan Province, the China National Petroleum Corporation and from within China's judicial system. But Zhou's name appeared on Chinese media for the first time since he was reportedly placed under investigation, thanks to a Hong Kong reporter who raised the question at the CPPCC press conference.
It seems that the investigation into Zhou hasn't concluded yet. Although market-oriented media are trying to report it in subtle ways, authorities have not addressed the issue directly.
As Zhou was a former high-ranking official, it necessarily takes a long time and a great deal of prudence to probe him. If there is no complete certainty, mainland media are not encouraged to mention Zhou in their reports.
However, it has become impossible for mainland media to avoid Zhou's name now. There will be public press conferences every day during the two sessions. Mainland reporters may restrain themselves, but their overseas counterparts will ask taboo questions. The wonderful nature of the two sessions' press conferences lies in the bold questioning by non-mainland reporters, which exposes the disadvantage of mainland media and demonstrates the aggressiveness of their outside counterparts.
This is a predicament for China's soft power. There is a reason for the country to keep its current practices when dealing with sensitive issues. However, at the same time it damages the credibility of the mainstream media.
We need to take this problem seriously. Some officials wrongly perceive mainstream media as being willing to sacrifice their reputation for governmental interests. But one of the biggest challenges for China's long-lasting stability nowadays is that the influence on mainstream public opinion is dwindling. The whole of society should work together to change this trend.