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Stuck behind the scenes as China's leadership changes hands

Clockwise from top left: Carlos Barria / Reuters, Ng Han Guan / AP, Alexander F. Yuan / AP, How Hwee Young / EPA

Scenes from the corridors and anterooms of the Great Hall of the People during the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.

By Le Li, NBC News

BEIJING — More than a thousand reporters turned up at the Great Hall of the People on Wednesday, expecting to cover the closing session of the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th Congress where the final leadership line-up would be revealed. But they soon discovered the election of the country's new leaders had ended before they had even entered the main conference hall.

Instead, they heard about the results the same way everyone else did: from state news agency Xinhua.

Xinhua live-blogged the event – both in Chinese on Sina Weibo and in English on Twitter, even though the latter is still blocked in China.  When the news agency posted a message that President Hu Jintao was casting a vote, the journalists were all stuck in the long corridors of the Great Hall of the People.

Ed Jones / AFP - Getty Images

Journalists wait in a corridor to be allowed access to the main hall during the closing ceremony of the Communist Party Congress on November 14, 2012.

I was one of them. By then, we had been waiting for over 10 minutes. Most of the others had been in the Great Hall of the People for almost three hours, but I was in good spirits, joking with the journalists around me about when we'd be allowed in.

When I saw Xinhua’s tweet announcing that Hu would be casting his vote, those feelings evaporated. There was nothing we could do – the line of reporters still wasn't moving. I could feel the temperature rising around me.

China's communists pick country's new leader

Clockwise from top left: Vincent Yu / AP, Wang Zhao / AFP - Getty Images, David Gray / Reuters, David Gray / Reuters

Scenes from the Great Hall of the People during the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.

Xinhua started reporting that Vice-President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang had been elected as members of the Central Committee, the highest authority in the party. Although we had shuffled forward a bit, we were still outside the entrance to the main hall. Some journalists didn’t even bother to wait in line and sat around with the conference hall staff pouring themselves tea.   

Le Li / NBC News

Surrounded by tea cups, a reporter rests while waiting in the bowels of the Great Hall of the People.

I tried posting the news on Weibo but the name “Xi Jinping” was blocked.

“Was the previous Party Congress like this, too?” a man asked someone behind me.

A woman replied, “No, I came here ten years ago. It was not like this at all.”

I turned around and saw they were reporters for a local Chinese news website. “Can you tell me what’s different?” I asked.

She took one look at my press pass and stopped talking. On my pass, it was clearly written in big Chinese characters: “USA.” She turned her head away.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Security personnel sitting as they guard different areas of the Great Hall of the People.

Communist Party's Congress grinds on amid widespread indifference in China

I tried checking Weibo again but there were no updates from Xinhua. Instead, I heard a quarrel at the entrance. Some photographers were arguing with security guards who were trying to block the half-open entrance. One guard yelled, “No one is allowed to enter!”

Eager to know what was going on, I pushed to the front of the line. Suddenly, the entrance opened and the grand, cavernous Great Hall of the People lay before us.

Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images

The closing ceremony of the Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People on November 14, 2012.

From my distant vantage point, I aimed my camera at the stage and started madly snapping photos.

But which one was Xi Jinping? All of the men were wearing the same clothes. The only person who stood out was Liu Yandong – a woman, and she was wearing bright blue.

Yawns and other expressions of boredom as China's Communist Party Congress begins

I looked at my phone and read Xinhua’s final tweets. “The voting concludes,” Xinhua said. “The new Central Committee of the Communist Party Congress and the new Central Commission for Discipline Inspection have been elected. The hall filled with great applause.”

Le Li / NBC News

Reporters taking pictures of cars parked in the courtyard of the Great Hall of the People.

It was all over.

All I had done was wait around in a corridor and take some pictures – along with every other journalist there. The best shot was of the courtyard, where more than 50 Audis were parked. Everyone else took the same photo and posted it on Twitter. The pictures were deleted within minutes, after netizens questioned why the Chinese leaders did not drive their own national brand, Red Flag.

One blogger noticed a Lexus among the Audis and commented, “One is even Japanese brand.” 

We might not have been able to report on the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th Congress, but at least we could prove that the Audi is the Chinese leadership’s car of choice.

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Carlos Barria / Reuters

Black Audi cars fill a parking lot inside the Great Hall of the People.