Difficulties Arise in Covering China Congress

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With all the political theater and official secrecy surrounding a Chinese Communist party congress, just getting the basic facts is hard enough. But this is the story of how the world's most populous nation is ruled, and it is not to be missed. Unfortunately, getting editors and listeners to care is often a challenge.


You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

A political news story can sometimes be like an inside joke. And it's the reporter's job to help you get it. One such story is the Chinese Communist Party's 17th National Congress, which wraps up today in Beijing.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn filed this Reporter's Notebook about how to cover Chinese politics without losing your sanity or your sense of humor.

President HU JINTAO (China): (Chinese Spoken)

ANTHONY KUHN: President Hu Jintao was getting hoarse about 50 pages into his 64-page speech on the congress opening day. I decided to take a seventh inning stretch. I left my tape recorder running and joined my colleagues on the second floor balcony to look for a ghost. We had heard that Hua Guofeng was in the house.

Hua was party chairman from just after Chairman Mao died in 1976 to 1981. Hua must be pushing 90 years old by now. With my binoculars, I combed the rows of officials sitting behind Hu Jintao under the huge red banners and the party's hammer and sickle emblem.

Found him - there, dressed in a Mao suit, slumped in his corner seat in the very last row. He looked incredibly morose, as if he were still upset about being brushed aside by the following leader, Deng Xiaoping.

Later, Hua looked comatose, totally out of it. My colleague asked, does he even know where he is?

I knew where I was. I was watching not only a living relic but a grand political puppet show shaped by thousands of years of Chinese statecraft. It reminded me that politics were all once pretty brutal, autocratic and secretive. And that none of us has progressed as far beyond them as we might think.

It also reminds me of the challenge I face when I sit down at the keyboard. Let's face it - Chinese politics are a hard sell. I don't blame listeners or editors for feeling lost amid the unfamiliar cast of characters, the unpronounceable names and the narrative landscape without any recognizable cultural reference points.

But make no mistake. China's leadership changes will affect the world. And this is not someone else's story. It is the world's. It is ours.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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