Yan Li, 47, struggled to keep calm on his seat, shifting uneasily at the thorny questions raised to him.
His uneasiness resulted from a "fake" identity he was assuming: mayor of Xiamen, the venue of a controversial chemical plant project, which the public believe will bring serious environmental problems to the coastal city.
"Do you think the government should be responsible for introducing the plant?" a reporter asked.
"Hum, I think..." Yan responded, hesitating. "If there are any mistakes made in city planning, the government will have to assume responsibility," he conceded.
Yan, who is actually the mayor of Suzhou, a booming industrial city in east China, was not the only one official being bombarded with questions on Thursday over some of the most difficult issues at present.
The rare mock press conference took place in the Party School of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, located in the northwestern suburb of Beijing.
The prestigious school is seen as a cradle for training high-ranking officials for the CPC with more than 70 million members. It was the first time the school held such a simulated press conference for its trainees.
In a lecture hall the words "How to deal with the media -- a simulated session" were printed on a blue backdrop. Some 30 officials, including government heads, Party committee chiefs and senior state-owned enterprise executives, were brought before a group of Xinhua reporters, who "represented" news organizations from around the world.
The "spokespersons" were divided into six groups, each of whom spent half an hour discussing a "hot" issue with the reporters, such as the Xiamen chemical plant project, medical reform, corruption, food safety, state assets and soaring consumer goods prices.
"The session is designed to practice the officials' spokesmanship and hone their skills to deal with the media," said Zhao Liwen, deputy director of the school's academic affairs department.
"This is also part of the ongoing curriculum reform in the school to train cadres with capabilities needed at the current time," he added.
Mayor Yan said it was the first time he attended a press conference like this. "Unlike other press conferences in which we were fully prepared, we came with only a little preparation. It (The conference) did test our ability to handle a emergency situation," he said.
The officials, mostly in business suits and ties, gave answers to a raft of sometimes vexatious questions: "As a Party discipline official, how can you walk the thin line between accepting holiday presents from friends and taking bribes?" "As an official with the Beijing Hospital, which has a history for providing medical treatment for 'cadres', will you respond to claims that officials are taking up more medical resources, while ordinary people find it difficult and expensive to see a doctor?..."
Some respondents were outspoken, some were still tacit, some customarily read figures and lines off sheets, but few were seen showing a stern face and tight lips, and none said "no comment".
Responses to the questions were followed by nods, spate of laughter, and whispers from the audience observing the mock press conference.
"Skills to deal with the media are part of political competence," said Gao Xinmin, a veteran professor on Party construction and the course instructor.
"Tactics are needed, like politeness and quick but skilful responses, in dealing with the media, but one of the most important things in this regard is to be candid," she added.
"Candidness not only woos media, but also the people, and it is needed because the public are not to be fooled," she said. "The media are our friends, and not enemy. We should respect them because their mission is to seek and report truth."
China began to popularize the spokesperson system in 2003. So far, seven CPC organs, 74 State Council departments and all the 31 provincial areas in the Chinese mainland have begun the system.
"A good media outlook not only helps improve the image of the official, but also benefits the image of the government agency or the city the official services or represents," she told the trainees.
(Xinhua News Agency January 4, 2008)