HONG KONG — If she looks like a reporter, walks like a reporter, and asks questions like a reporter, she must be a reporter, right?
Not necessarily in China.
That was the lesson from a strange side story in Beijing's 18th Party Congress that ended last week. Amid all the reading of tea leaves about China’s new leaders (pro-reform, anti-reform?), many foreign observers came away from the highly choreographed show shaking their heads at one young Australian woman: Andrea Yu.
Yu’s mistake, if it can be called that, was to be called on four times to ask questions, while foreign journalists from some of the best-known publications in the world were ignored, or shut out completely. (The New York Times was not invited to the congress at all.)
“Please tell us what policies and plans the Chinese government will be implementing in cooperation with Australia,” she asked one official in fluent Mandarin, prompting him to compliment her language skills.
Her questions were taped and circulated by CCTV, the state-run television network, and distributed over Weibo, China's version of Twitter. Weibo users nicknamed her “Sister Question,” and gushed that because of China’s economic growth, “the Chinese language has really heated up its global influence!” Yu was even featured in a slideshow on the state-run People’s Daily website.
As it turned out, Yu’s employer, CAMG media international, while based in Australia, is majority controlled by Beijing, and has ties with the Communist government.
In other words, she was a plant.
In a later interview, she admitted that her questions were provided to her in advance. As she told Stephen McDonell of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “I wouldn't call [my questions] hard news, I wouldn't call it that, OK, I'm not going to be kidding myself there," she said.
“I think certainly spreading Chinese government soft power around the world via avenues like this is very important to the government… I am aware that I can't ask the hard questions that I may personally be interested in asking because of who I'm representing.”
Of course, this phenomenon is hardly confined to China. In a sense, you could say the Chinese government is taking a page out of the book of President George W. Bush.
At a White House press conference in early 2005, Bush called on a reporter named Jeff Gannon, who lobbed the president a question about how to deal with Democrats who had “divorced themselves from reality.”
The press smelled something funny about it, and descended on Gannon, outing him as a GOP operative who had been granted press credentials despite having no real background as a journalist.
In a similar way, Yu's story has touched a nerve for China-watchers because it lays bare the compromises, challenges and ethical traps of reporting on a single-party state that wants to control how it is seen by Chinese citizens, and the world.
While criticizing her decision to present herself as a reporter, some expats say Yu deserves some sympathy — particularly since many of them have put in time as copy editors or writers for state-controlled media.
Eric Fish, editor of the website Sinostand, previously worked at the nationalist Chinese tabloid Global Times. He says Yu went too far, but doubts "she ever made a conscious decision to head down the especially dark tunnel she ended up in," he said. "[S]he’s a victim of a cold system that’s all too happy to push people around like pawns in order to mislead the country and the world.”
More from GlobalPost: Obama says US should "get its hands dirty" in Southeast Asia
For many, the larger issue is the role that Beijing-backed global media firms such as CAMG — which presents itself as an independent Australian company — may play in the soft-power strategy of the central government.
“All this discussion of Yu is sort of missing the forest for the trees. The forest is that the Chinese government is apparently looking to replace the foreign press with ‘foreign’ ‘press’ (at least to some extent) at official events.” says Charlie Custer, editor of China Geeks.
Fortunately, at least so far, many Chinese people are not buying CAMG's government-friendly "journalism." On Weibo, a number of people voiced skepticism about Andrea Yu.
"She’s just a shill!” wrote user Jinqilinyang. “Look at her background and you’ll know.”
"They’ve ripped the veil off the Australian reporter ‘Sister Question,’” said another. "Phony media is just a political tool!"