No Questions Asked

Thursday, April 20, 2006

FOR HU JINTAO, the substance of his summit meeting with President Bush today will occur before it ever begins -- with the 21-gun salute the Chinese president will receive on the White House lawn. Broadcast back to China, the reception will be offered by the communist regime as proof that Mr. Bush regards Mr. Hu as a strategic partner in managing global affairs. But there's another signal moment of the day's events, which will occur just after the Bush-Hu talks. Contrary to the standard protocol for visiting heads of state, there will be no news conference at which American and Chinese journalists can ask unscripted questions.

The White House's acquiescence to a Chinese demand that Mr. Hu not be subjected to possibly embarrassing queries about political prisoners, religious freedom or censorship of the Internet symbolizes a major element of Mr. Bush's policy -- his willingness to relegate China's worsening performance on political freedom and human rights to a back burner.

To be sure, in briefings for American journalists and in the president's public remarks, human rights issues will be duly noted. Mr. Bush is said to be particularly moved by China's suppression of religious freedom, both among its 70 million Christians and the Buddhists of Tibet; we're told he's also focused on Beijing's policy of forcibly repatriating refugees from North Korea, in violation of international treaties.

There is much else Mr. Bush could raise with Mr. Hu, including China's employment of some 30,000 censors to control content on the Internet; its status as the world's biggest jailer of journalists, with dozens held for reporting on official corruption, environmental disasters or the need for political reform; its abrogation of an agreement to allow full democracy in Hong Kong; or the recent report of the U.N. rapporteur on torture, which said that torture "remains widespread in China."

Maybe Mr. Bush will mention some of this. But even if he does, we'll never hear Mr. Hu's response, thanks to the administration's exquisite sensitivity to Beijing's aversion to press freedom. With annoying questions excluded, the focus today is likely to be just where Mr. Hu wants it, on his discussion of strategic issues with Mr. Bush; the visual will be his 21-gun salute. Never mind that according to Mr. Bush's doctrine, respect for human rights is directly connected to the ability of states to be strategic partners of the United States. "Governments that brutalize their people," says the president's new national security strategy, "also threaten the peace and stability of other nations." News conference question for Mr. Bush: Does that logic not apply to China?

© 2006 The Washington Post Company