My new friend, the foreign minister

How this Western journalist inadvertently helped the Chinese government

The phone rang around 10am. "Hello. It's the foreign ministry. How are you?" How was I? Better before he rang. I combed my brain for any transgression I could possibly have committed. Had my story on Channel 4 News the previous day been so critical that they were going to give me a dressing down?

"We haven't seen you for a while, and it would be good to have a chat." Oh dear. I thought my story on the new property law was pretty standard. Firm but fair. It had for and against and those who thought the whole thing was irrelevant. Balanced. Objective. A model of its kind.

"You're coming to the foreign minister's press conference this afternoon, aren't you? We'll see you there." "Oh, yes, of course . . ." I stuttered, thinking: What press conference?

I checked with our office manager. Yes, Li Zhaoxing, the foreign minister, was giving a press conference in the afternoon. Oh, and by the way, they'd been ringing asking for my mobile number. Was everything all right? I racked my brains. I think my stories haven't been critical enough. It's about time I got into trouble. But I couldn't imagine how I had done so.

It was the second day of the National People's Congress, the annual jamboree where 3,000 "people's delegates" descend on the restaurants and karaoke bars of Beijing every evening, after a day of long sessions where they all agree with each other about policies the government is already implementing and laws they have already decided to pass. This year the authorities have been trumpeting how open to the media they are, because journalists no longer have to struggle through a bureaucratic procedure to interview delegates, but can approach them directly.

My experience of the direct approach was that when we asked one delegate what she thought of the property law she said she was sure it was a good idea, while another said that she didn't know much about it but agreed with it none the less. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao talked at great length on the opening day about his vision of a "harmonious society". The NPC is indeed a model of harmony - everyone sings exactly the same note. For 12 days. Then they go home.

The phone calls continued at regular intervals until I found myself in the Great Hall of the People, among a large crowd of mainly Chinese journalists. I spotted only a couple of colleagues from the western media. The man who had rung me from the foreign ministry indicated my assigned seat. Suddenly I understood. I was not in trouble. I had been drafted.

The government needs the foreign minister's annual press conference to be dignified as an Important Event, which requires foreign journalists to show up, so Chinese television can film them taking notes and asking questions. I wasn't summoned for a roasting, but because I was required to play a role, to give the impression to the watching Chinese public that foreigners take the NPC and the annual press conferences seriously. It is part of the government's project to convince its own citizens that the NPC is a real parliament and China has its own form of democracy.

The minister spoke for two hours. Reporters asked questions about China's policies across the globe, to which he replied that China followed "an independent foreign policy of peace", wanted a "harmonious world" and believed in "national sovereignty". I doodled. He said China wanted to help Africa. He told us that as a child he had longed to be a journalist so he could travel. He had enjoyed a recent trip to India. He spent a lot of time in aeroplanes.

Chinese diplomacy is ever more important, and its role on the UN Security Council frequently pivotal. China has pushed North Korea to suspend its nuclear programme, and protected Iran and Sudan from American pressure. Li Zhaoxing reflected on none of this, because he had no interest in making news for the foreign media. His job was to give the appearance of making news, for domestic consumption.

At the end, the minister said he had received a written question from a journalist who wanted to know about Tibet's cultural achievements. (I considered asking whether the fact that the foreign minister was talking about Tibet meant China now considered it a foreign country, but thought better of it.) He gave us the statistics on the railway which links Beijing to Lhasa, and explained how it had been carefully built to avoid disturbing the flora and fauna along the route. "So the wild animals are living a happy life!" he declared, and trotted off stage.

The next day several people rang to say they had seen me on Chinese television. A friend's Chinese girlfriend said she had glanced at the TV a few times during the NPC. "Looks like there are more foreign journalists covering it this year," she said. So the strategy worked. The intended impression was given, and I - unwittingly - helped them do it.

Lindsey Hilsum is China correspondent for Channel 4 News

Lindsey Hilsum is China Correspondent for Channel 4 News. She has previously reported extensively from Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Latin America.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: Why Brown went to war with Labour