BEIJING: President Xi Jinping Wednesday encouraged members of the press "to visit and see more of China" when he unveiled his new leadership -- but five Western media outlets were excluded from the event.
Journalists bearing a deep red invitation, with "The Great Hall of the People" emblazoned in golden script, arrived to watch Xi formally begin his second term and introduce his ruling council.
But reporters from the New York Times, the Economist, the Financial Times, the Guardian and the BBC were not invited, unable to listen in person to Xi's pledge to "welcome objective reporting" and "constructive suggestions".
"It is hard to avoid the conclusion that these media organisations have been singled out to send a message," said the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China, which named the excluded publications in a Twitter statement.
"Using media access as a tool to punish journalists whose coverage the Chinese authorities disapprove of is a gross violation of the principles of press freedom."
The media figured prominently in Xi's speech, one day after his name was added to the ruling Communist Party's constitution at the close of the 19th National Congress.
Xi expressed hope that "our journalist friends will continue to follow China's development and progress, and learn about and report on more dimensions of China."
The more than 200 journalists in attendance heard these statements in a crowded hall with no cell reception, where state media was given privileged seating and aisles were manned by propaganda officials.
China has one of the world's worst records on press freedom and a heavily censored internet.
Domestic journalists who publish critical stories are sometimes jailed, while foreign reporters who do the same risk having their visas revoked.
In recent years, the latter have often been harassed by police and found it impossible to independently visit Tibet.
Chinese media is dominated by state broadcaster CCTV and Xinhua, the state news agency, which reported Xi's address under the headline "Xi says China welcomes constructive suggestions".
Reporters Without Borders ranked China fifth-to-last in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
Officials at the party's twice-a-decade congress, which lasted a week, strove to refute this.
"We had six press conferences and eight group interviews at the 19th Congress," the congress media centre said in a statement, responding to a question from AFP about why certain publications were excluded from Wednesday's event.
"The channels for reporters to conduct interviews and receive updates about the congress were unblocked."
Yet many, if not all, of the questions at such briefings were pre-selected, while delegates trotted out nothing but platitudes when interviewed.
The centre's statement also noted that "the media mentioned" were seen in regular attendance at these briefings, while space was limited Wednesday.
"We already tried our best to allow more foreign journalists to attend this event," it said.
"We hope to welcome those who truly care about China's development; who can provide objective, impartial and balanced coverage; who are truly concerned with the future direction of Chinese policy to come report on our events."
The language in the statement echoed Xi's address: "We do not need lavish praise from others; however, we do welcome objective reporting and constructive suggestions."
Beside him stood the six other members of the Politburo Standing Committee, who were given only brief introductions despite being the top decision-making body.
They stood in a neat line, staring ahead and largely unsmiling.
Meanwhile, the most powerful Chinese leader in decades beamed as he closed with lines from a Yuan dynasty poem: "This is our motto: 'Not angling for compliments, I would be content that my integrity fills the universe'."
Xi strode off the podium to a cascade of camera flashes, his council in tow.
No one took any questions.