Trudeau's China visit: Media navigate unfamiliar sea of protocol

Journalists covering the Canadian delegation travelling with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on his first official visit to China get a taste of how local media struggle to maintain some freedom of the press.

Strange moments from the road during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 10-day trip to China

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau inspect the honour guard at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

A drive into downtown Shanghai from the airport at first feels a little like the trip into Toronto, travelling along the Gardiner Expressway.

But farther along the highway, as buildings get taller and works of modern architectural art come into view, the familiarity disappears, and it feels like you've entered some sort of futuristic world.

As one colleague put it, it's like driving into an episode of The Jetsons. Except George, Jane, and their son Elroy don't have access to Google.

Canadian reporters covering Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's first official visit to China are aware of the challenges that could — and will — emerge during the 10-day trip.

Challenges are to be expected when travelling to a country with a press freedom history like China's.

Obviously, as media covering the official Canadian delegation, we do not see first-hand the real struggle that local journalists face when trying to exercise freedom of the press on a daily basis here.

Some Chinese journalists risk jail time, or even their lives, for simply trying to report the news.

And compared to what Canadian foreign correspondents face heading into conflict zones and dangerous locations, this trip is a piece of cake. 

But this piece is meant to serve as a behind-the-scenes look at some of the stranger experiences on the road so far. 

Where's my Google?

First, feel bad for the IT support staff.

Our newsrooms back in Canada are getting urgent middle-of-the-night phone calls from reporters needing help to get around internet restrictions. 

Google is banned in China, which means there is no Gmail access either. When you're trying to send news content back to Canada — and on deadline — finding your way around the problem takes up valuable filing time.

Consular support staff are around to help, but they deal mostly with direct issues on the ground. 

A CBC camera operator waits as police look through his passport on a Beijing street. (Katie Simpson/CBC)

Shortly after landing in Beijing, the pool media team headed out into the street to record reports for our respective television stations back home. 

About 20 minutes into the shoot, a police van with lights flashing approached our location. Of course the officers wanted to know what we were up to.

Our camera operators had their passports examined and, after some help from a local translator, police told us to hurry up, finish our work, and return to our hotel. 

Moving forward, our camera locations are now selected not just based on what the shot looks like, but also finding a spot where the crew will not attract the attention of police. 

The politics of a question

The strangest behind-the-scenes moment so far has to be the joint news conference by Trudeau and China's Premier Li Keqiang last Wednesday.

It is rare for high-level political officials in China to take questions from journalists, and it was obvious that the political staff were on edge the morning of the event. 

The day before the news conference, reporters were told Trudeau and Li would take one question from a Canadian journalist and one question from a Chinese journalist.

Officials working for Chinese Premier Li Kequiang, seen here on Wednesday with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, made efforts to limit and screen questions posed to the leaders. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Since all reporters have a stake in the question, the nine Canadian journalists on this trip huddled together to determine what needed to be asked. After a series of emails and a discussion, topics were picked, and my colleagues allowed me to ask the question.

My name was submitted to officials, which is not unusual, and off we headed to The Great Hall of the People.

As journalists set up gear and waited for the leaders to arrive, the premier's political officer sat down next to me to discuss logistics.

It was obvious the woman was trying to set the editorial agenda.

She repeatedly asked me what question I had for Trudeau. I explained that in Canada, reporters do not share questions for politicians in advance, and that the Canadian question for both leaders would be kept private.

The phrase "both leaders" must have set off alarm bells.

I was told, sternly, the Chinese journalist was to ask the question of the Chinese premier. I was not to ask Li a question. It simply wasn't protocol.

Chinese political leaders do not like to be publicly asked questions about sensitive issues; that could be seen as embarrassing and or disrespectful.

At that point, the translator approached our awkward conversation and asked for my question in advance.

I explained, again, it wasn't going to happen, and that I would speak slowly so the translators could easily follow along.

Sensing trouble ahead, the press officer rushed away to speak with her colleagues, who quickly took off in different directions. 

Chinese press officials approached members of the Canadian delegation, clearly giving them a hard time about the impending taboo.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his wife, Sophie Gregoire, and their daughter, Ella-Grace, visit the Great Wall of China. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

I started to worry that the Chinese delegation might try to put a stop to the question portion of the news conference, as they knew I was likely to "break protocol."

When the officer returned, I tried to busy myself in my iPhone, hoping our conversation was over, and that we could sit in glorious silence until the news conference began.

The approach didn't work. 

For the next 20 minutes, I went on the polite small talk offensive — very Canadian, when you think about it.

Not allowing any silence, I asked her question after question, about her life, China, her job, and her family — painfully and awkwardly dragging out conversation until finally both leaders walked to the podiums.

The question was asked, both leaders answered, and news was made.

On a very human level, I feel bad for the press officer. She probably got in trouble for not finding a way to stop my question. 

But I don't suspect it's something that anyone will hear about in the Chinese press. Or through a Google search. 


Katie Simpson is a foreign correspondent with CBC News based in Washington. Prior to joining the team in D.C. she spent six years covering Parliament Hill in Ottawa and nearly a decade covering local and provincial issues in Toronto.


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