IT was freezing cold outside the Great Hall of the People on Nov 1, but half of us – pressmen from Malaysia covering Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s official visit to China – were not allowed to enter this famous building to the west of Tiananmen Square to observe the indoor welcome reception for him by China’s Premier Li Keqiang.
The reason? Our names were not on the official list for the early afternoon event that day, according to China’s stone-faced protocol officer on duty.
In addition, we could not even linger in the verandah to shield off some biting wind, blowing in the 4ºC cold. We were also not allowed to enter to use the washrooms of the Great Hall.
In the programme leaflet, the media could only observe the official welcome ceremony outdoors at 4.50pm that day (Nov 1).
And this meant a wait of about two hours out in the bitter cold for the 10 of us, who had not wrapped ourselves warmly enough.
Bundled back into the van, we could only stare – in awe – at this political hub of China where legislative and ceremonial activities of the Government and Communist Party of China are held.
Every March, this is the centre of news when the full sessions of the Chinese Parliament (the National People’s Congress), and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (a political advisory body), are on. It is here that key national policies are announced.
This was only the beginning part of the daily grind that the 21 of us went through behind the glamour of Najib’s Nov 1 to Nov 4 trip to Beijing, where he also met with President Xi Jinping to take bilateral ties to a new high.
Without a doubt, it was a highly successful diplomatic trip for the Malaysian leader.
When Najib summed up his visit on the night of Nov 4, he told reporters that this was “the most fruitful” among all the official visits he had made to China after assuming premiership.
Not only had he witnessed the signing of 28 MOUs (memorandum of understanding) worth RM144bil in Beijing and convinced the legendary Jack Ma, founder and chairman of Alibaba Group, to be adviser to his government to build up the digital economy, he had also helped two Malaysian companies iron out problems relating to their mega investments in China.
With functions coming up one after another, Malaysian journalists covering Najib and his high-powered ministerial delegation had to follow their tight schedule and write our stories speedily.
On the first day of the PM’s visit, every journalist worked past midnight, without dinner.
The PM’s 8pm media conference not only condensed the outcome of his meeting with Li on diplomatic and economic issues, but also the important MOUs signed.
In fact, before Nov 1, journalists were already at work in Beijing trying to “scoop” one another. The Star got an important exclusive by reporting that the MOUs would include soft loans from China amounting to RM55bil for the construction of the East Coast Rail Line.
Transport Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai, who was busy meeting with his counterpart in China and accompanied Najib everywhere, had done a lot of legwork to get Beijing to invest in Malaysia’s railway systems, ports and airports.
The other person who has been working quietly behind the scenes was Tan Sri Ong Ka Ting, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy to China.
According to a senior government source, Ong was instrumental in persuading Ma to meet with Najib on Nov 4 and jointly witnessed the launch of Alitrip Malaysia Tourism Pavilion, a digital platform on Alibaba that could boost the number of Chinese visitors to Malaysia.
The presence of Ma made the day for the premier and everyone present.
It was an event that Malaysian politicians and businessmen in the PM’s entourage looked forward to.
Catching a glimpse of the IT wizard in the world of e-commerce and listening to his speech was the dream for many.
But due to tight security, possibly no one could get near to take a photograph with him.
In China, it is important for major foreign projects to be endorsed by the home country. Having been briefed on this, Najib told national and provincial leaders that his government supported the RMB15bil (RM9.7bil) seawater desalination project in Tianjin and RMB20bil (RM13bil) Genting Secret Garden Resort in Hebei.
For the seawater desalination and salt-making plant, low-profile Malaysian businessman Mah Sau Cheong could not go ahead with construction work apparently due to the non-action by the Tianjin authorities to sign an agreement with him.
Following news that Najib wanted to witness the signing of the agreement, all systems moved.
The PM took a high-speed train from Beijing to Tianjin to meet local leaders before witnessing the signing jointly with Li Hongzhong, party secretary of the Communist Party of Tianjin. With the hurdle removed, the Mah family members were smiling broadly.
Meanwhile, Genting Secret Garden Resort, an investment by Datuk Lim Chee Wah and his brother Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay in Hebei, was also facing what Chee Wah said were “good problems arising from success”.
Whatever that meant, his ambiguous problem must have been resolved after the PM held a meeting with Hebei Governor Zhang Qingwei. Najib said Hebei would like to see Malaysian trade missions and investments coming to the province and vice versa.
But as this event came immediately after the frenzy of Alitrip’s launch, it was eclipsed by news linked to Jack Ma. Hence, no reporter asked Najib what “good problems” Secret Garden had actually faced.
As the Genting Snow Parks within Genting Secret Garden Resort have been chosen as venues for the Beijing Winter Olympics 2022 in the skiing and snowboarding events, this project must not fail.
Stating his appreciation, Najib did not forget to thank International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed and officials, Malaysian diplomats in China and Wisma Putra officials for their contributions.
At the dialogue with 35 Chinese captains of industry, Najib made special mention that the minister and his officers had worked hard to make the business dialogue and another concurrent investment seminar in Beijing possible.
And to the surprise of journalists, the PM showed his appreciation to the media in a special way. He posted a photo of him with us in his Facebook with a “thank you” note:
“Taking picture with Malaysian media covering me in Beijing. Since they have been here from Oct 31, they have worked long hours every day to provide comprehensive news coverage. This has enabled the rakyat to obtain accurate information about the status of Malaysia-China relations. Thank you.”
Hafizah Kamaruddin, editor of the official news agency Bernama, reacted: “Based on my experience covering the PM overseas, he had often showed appreciation to the media, but this is the first time he thanked the media in black and white.”
She noted that this Beijing trip was the most hectic for the PM and journalists, with back-to-back meetings.
The acknowledgement from the top leader on the media’s hard work is uplifting.
It is also a recognition that the media plays an important role in the dissemination of information and in nation-building.
But to be fair, the life of journalists in cold Beijing was made easier with the close cooperation of Joan Lai, the PM’s press secretary, and Mimi Kaur Ramday, director of the Department of Communications and Public Diplomacy at Wisma Putra.
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