Hu Jintao meets the free press

Chinese President Hu Jintao leads a toast at the White House state dinner on Wednesday.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Something about human rights just doesn't translate for Chinese President Hu Jintao.

President Obama granted him the full state-dinner treatment that President George W. Bush denied him five years ago - but in return, Hu had to put up with a news conference, which he had refused to do when Obama visited China. For a repressive ruler, facing a free press is about as pleasant a prospect as attending the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.

After the leaders' standard opening statements full of the blah-blah about bilateral cooperation, the Associated Press's Ben Feller rose and asked a gutsy, forceful question.

"Can you explain to the American people how the United States can be so allied with a country that is known for treating its people so poorly, for using censorship and force to repress its people?" he asked Obama. And to Hu: "I'd like to give you a chance to respond to this issue of human rights. How do you justify China's record, and do you think that's any of the business of the American people?"

Obama answered. The translator translated. All eyes turned to Hu - who said nothing.

Instead, he looked to a woman from China Central Television - the state-run network that answers to the Communist Party's propaganda department - who tossed him a softball about "friendship and mutual understanding."

But the next questioner, Bloomberg's Hans Nichols, gave Hu a lesson in press freedoms. "First off, my colleague asked you a question about human rights which you did not answer," the lanky newsman advised the Chinese strongman. "I was wondering if we could get an answer to that question."

In Beijing, that impertinence would get a reporter jailed. But Hu wasn't in Beijing. During the translation of Nichols's question, Hu held a palm up and smiled, as if he couldn't see what all the fuss was about. "Because of the technical translation and interpretation problem, I did not hear the question about the human rights," he explained - falsely, as it turns out.

It was a good moment for the American press. Feller and Nichols put the Chinese leader on the spot in a way that Obama, constrained by protocol, could not have done. The White House press corps has at times been too gentle on Obama (recall the adulatory pre-Christmas news conference), but on Wednesday afternoon, Obama and the press corps were justifiably on the same side, displaying the rights of free people.

For reporters, it was a second time in a week they were unexpectedly allied with the White House against foreigners suspicious of American freedoms. In the White House briefing room last week, a reporter from Russia's state-run Itar-Tass news agency hectored press secretary Robert Gibbs about the Tucson shooting, asking if too much freedom was to blame. Reporters, though they spend their days quarreling with Gibbs, very much supported his sharp refutation of the Russian's challenge.

The Hu case was stranger still. Though such events are usually done with simultaneous translation (the leaders and reporters are given headsets), the Chinese delegation had requested that the Q&A portion of the news conference be translated consecutively, which takes twice as long.

Exactly why the Chinese made this request was not apparent - but a clue emerged when Hu started getting grilled about human rights. After Feller asked his question about human rights and Obama answered, Hu looked around, pointing at his ear; an aide came up and whispered something to him. According to a person in the know, Feller's question - including the bit about human rights directed at Hu - was fully translated into Chinese.

Hu, however, ignored that question in favor of the gentler one from his employee at Chinese television. As luck would have it, Hu was perfectly prepared for the question, and, in his reply, looked down to read statistics from his notes.

Reporters glanced at each other, puzzled over Hu's ignoring of Feller's question. During the interminable translation into Mandarin of Hu's answer to the Chinese reporter's question, Obama flashed a grin at Gibbs.

Hu, his forehead shining, had another plant waiting in the crowd, a reporter from the state-run Xinhua news agency. But before Hu could get that lifeline tossed his way, the microphone went to the American side, where Nichols demanded an answer to the human-rights question. This time, Hu couldn't claim it was lost in translation.

"China is a developing country with a huge population and also a developing country in a crucial stage of reform," he explained. "In this context, China still faces many challenges in economic and social development, and a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights."

No wonder Hu doesn't like questions: He might have to give an honest answer.

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