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China's leaders show rare openness during national assembly. Are leaders braving TV cameras to obscure leadership struggle?

The Chinese government has put on an unprecedented show of openness for the past two weeks with a series of nationally televised press conferences showing journalists questioning senior state officials. The occasion has been the annual meeting of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's national assembly. Several thousand delegates have gathered in Peking to approve policies and hear government reports. According to the Constitution, the NPC is the highest organ of state power. The press has been allowed to attend some of its meetings and on six occasions has been invited to question top government leaders in front of television cameras.

One explanation for the openness, offered by a Chinese journalist, is that the Chinese Communist Party is trying to show the government is functioning normally and there is no serious power struggle in the leadership, despite recent evidence to the contrary.

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At the NPC meeting last year, two of China's five vice-premiers met with the press. But this year, the number was upped to three, including vice-premiers Yao Yilin, Li Peng, and Tian Jiyun.

In an even more remarkable meeting, deputy chief-of-general staff of the People's Liberation Army, Xu Xin, hunkered down with the press for 90 minutes, presenting the image of a no-nonsense military man. It was the first time in memory that a senior military leader held a press conference in Peking. He accepted, though did not always answer, pointed questions about China's massive military establishment and its progress toward modernization.

Vice-foreign ministers Qian Qichen and Qi Huaiyuan have also answered questions on Chinese foreign policy for more than two hours.

Journalists have been allowed to question China's top judicial officials and several prominent intellectuals, including the country's preeminent sociologist Fei Xiaotong. Mr. Fei surprised everyone by expressing sympathy for former Communist Party secretary Hu Yaobang and praising his accomplishments. Mr. Hu was forced to resign earlier this year, creating a leadership crisis in the party.

Such press meetings are commonplace in other countries, but China-based correspondents rarely get to see, much less question, top officials face-to-face. The meetings have been broadcast on national television, in some cases almost full length. (Sensitive questions about Mr. Hu and other leadership issues have been edited out.)

``This is a first, isn't it?'' asked a young medical student after seeing the vice-premiers face the press. (Last year's press conference was not televised.) Roused by the occasion, he then shared his own views on some of the topics raised, defying recent warnings against contacts with foreign journalists. He said he was surprised and pleased at the interest of foreign reporters who raised questions that were also of concern to Chinese citizens.

If the general public has appeared stirred by the Chinese glasnost or ``openness,'' many reporters remain skeptical.

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``We're not getting anything more substantial than what's being published in Xinhua [the official Chinese news agency], but the packaging is more sophisticated,'' said a British reporter. One Chinese journalist confided that the appearance of openness is ``superficial.''

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