Speculations gone wild as China canceled the premier’s annual press conference

The NPC spokesman Lou Qinjian told the press that there would not be a premier press conference after the annual parliamentary meetings this year and in the next few years. Screenshot from the BBC's YouTube channel. Fair use.

China made a surprise announcement on March 4, one day ahead of the opening of its annual National People’s Congress (NPC), that the country’s premier Li Qiang will not hold a press conference at the end of its “Two Sessions” legislative meeting. The decision marks a break with a political convention started by China’s first premier, Zhou Enlai.

The NPC spokesman Lou Qinjian told the press that there would not be a premier press conference after the annual parliamentary meetings this year and in the next few years, and explained that there would be more briefings by government ministers during the NPC.

Although the press conference was a formality, as all the questions raised were pre-submitted to the authorities, most journalists, in particular those who follow Chinese political news, found the news shocking: 

In the Chinese political system, the premier is the second-highest ranking person under the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, who acts as the president of the country. However, the premier is constitutionally elected by the NPC and holds substantial power as they head all administrative bodies of the central government. The annual press conference thus serves as a symbolic arrangement to assert the Premier's leadership in the country's administration.

The history of the annual premier press conference

Before the People's Republic of China was established in the 1940s, Zhou Enlai, a key leader of the Communist Party of China (CPC), had established a friendly relationship with both local and foreign journalists. For example, he personally took charge of the reception of the press in Yan’an, where the CPC’s headquarters was based between 1936 to 1948. Zhou instructed his colleagues that “we must be sincere and candid and make friends with the reporters.”

The press conference arrangement after the annual parliamentary meetings, dubbed Two Sessions, consisting of the NPC and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), was institutionalized in 1987, and, the following year, Chinese Central Television started airing the press meeting to the whole country. In that press conference, newly elected members of the State Council, including Li Peng, Yao Yilin, Tien Jiyun and Wu Xueqian, met with more than 400 reporters. 

In 1991, Li Peng established the custom of the premier meeting with the press at the end of the Two Sessions. Since 1993, the number of media outlets registered for the annual press conference has been between 600 and 800, the majority of which were from overseas. The press conference took about 1.5 to 2.5 hours, and the premier would answer up to 20 questions. 

The two most momentous speeches from the annual premier press conference were made by Wen Jiabao and Li Keqiang.

In 2012, in response to a question raised by a Singaporean media outlet, Wen Jiabao stressed the necessity of China's political reform: 


Now that the reform has reached an intensive stage, without a successful political system reform, it is impossible for us to fully institute economic structural reform and the gains we have made in this area may be lost. New problems emerged in the society cannot be resolved, and historical tragedies like the “Cultural Revolution” may happen again. Every responsible party member and leader should have a sense of urgency.

As for Li Keqiang, his speech in 2020 was made amid the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. It came after a China Daily reporter’s question about China's success in poverty alleviation, 


China is a developing country with a large population. Our per capita annual disposable income is RMB 30,000 yuan, but there are 600 million middle to lower-income people with a RMB 1,000 yuan average monthly income. It could be difficult to rent an apartment in a middle-tier city with 1,000 yuan…

Li’s speech was interpreted as a disagreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s plan to declare the realization of a moderately prosperous society in all respects in July 2021. 

Dwarfing the role of the State Council

The sudden announcement of the cancellation of the premier press conference therefore, stirred a lot of speculations among overseas Chinese on X. For example, Cai Shen Kun, a Chinese current affairs commentator, wrote: 

Wall Street Journal: There will be no press conference by the premier of the State Council after NPC this year. The public appearance of Li Qiang after the two sessions last year was the last show. Chinese politics will enter a black-box mode. In fact, Li Keqiang's annual press conference after the two sessions was extremely irritating to Xi Jinping, but it has been a convention for decades since China's reform and opening up and is a sign of the government’s openness. With Li Keqiang's departure, this remaining window to observe China's political situation has been closed.

China specialist Scott Kennedy commented with a sense of humor:

Wall Street Journal’s reporter Wong Chun Han pointed out that from the very beginning, Li Qiang, since his inauguration, had subordinated himself and the State Council to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s leadership:

Last year in March, the State Council amended its “working rules,” stressing that the work of the State Council shall be guided by the “Thought of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era of Xi Jinping” and adding that major policy decisions, matters and situations should report to the Central Committee of the CPC for approval. The principle of “advancing the openness of governance” was deleted. 

On mainland Chinese social media, there isn’t any comment on the abolition of the premier press conference, but a video clip went viral in the past two days:

In the majority of ancient Chinese dynasties, the empire state was headed by the prime minister, while the emperor was the symbolic ruler. However, some emperors were more autocratic, and by sharing the clip, people seem to suggest that China's top leader Xi Jinping is among one of these autocrats.

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