BEIJING -- Chinese President Xi Jinping spent much of this year's Belt and Road Forum promoting the openness of his signature international infrastructure initiative, but the event’s atmosphere was anything but transparent as foreign media were kept nearly entirely out of the loop.
International journalists had descended on the Chinese capital to find out more about Xi's ambitious initiative that seeks to create a modern Silk Road by building roads, rail line and ports. So far, more than 125 countries have signed cooperation agreements with China related to the initiative, which some critics have derided for a lack of transparency and a being a debt trap for developing countries.
"I don't want to see your press pass. I want to see the permit for your car," a police officer told journalists trying to attend the two-day forum's opening ceremony early Friday, about 1 km from event’s venue, the capital’s iconic Great Hall of the People on the edge of Tiananmen Square.
Unlike the last forum held in 2017, vehicle permits were not issued this year, so reporters were forced to leave their cars and walk the rest of the way.
After arriving at the safety inspection area on foot, however, journalists were told that the station was for cars only and that they would have to take a detour to the venue.
Journalists then walked another 30 minutes only to be told by police that the roads were closed with just 500 meters left until the proper inspection station. A press pass proved no help either, and the officers said they were unsure when the roads would reopen.
Enforcement remained firm at 9 a.m., just 30 minutes until the start of the ceremony, a fact that foreign media only discovered through some digging of their own. The journalists insisted that they just wanted to cover Xi's speech.The police did not budge.
Local commuters and delivery workers were heavily affected by the closures. Those who said they needed to go to work were told to go around the blocked off roads. Those who complained they would be late were reprimanded for not leaving the house earlier.
The media was only told that the opening ceremony would take place in the morning without an exact start time. Local citizens also had no way of knowing.
An elderly woman on her way to treatment was simply told to take the long way despite pleading with officers that she needed to go to the hospital on the other side of the blockage. "What kind of international meeting prevents you from going to a hospital," the woman said.
When the ceremony began at 9:30, police finally said that those with press passes could enter.
"In pursuing Belt and Road cooperation, everything should be done in a transparent way, and we should have zero tolerance for corruption," Xi said in his keynote speech Friday.
Those words seemed out of place as it became apparent that the forum would largely be a closed-door affair.Only reporters invited to smaller meetings on Thursday for certain topics, such as finance and trade, were told the start times, venues and attendees. Uninvited journalists were left to guess whether these sessions were even held.
The press center was conspicuously empty compared with the last time, for which it was difficult to secure a seat. Journalists from Western media outlets were scarce, and information was limited.
Press centers for international forums generally have large screens with silent video of the venue for reporters. Leaders are sometimes captured talking privately off to the side on these screens.
The 2017 forum was typical in this manner. Journalists could see the red carpet being laid out for Russian President Vladamir Putin even as his late arrival kept other leaders waiting.
The only image on the screen this time was Xi's speech, however, after which only unrelated images to the forum were displayed. The experience was no different from watching Chinese state-run television.
Up to 100 uninvited journalists were also reserved seats at Xi's Saturday afternoon news conference, but the cap does not seem to have been met. Officials at China's foreign ministry were calling around to find more reporters who would attend.
The situation was unchanged on Saturday. "I don't know when the leaders' discussion will begin or when it will end," the woman sitting at the press center's reception desk said in the morning.