By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 20, 2011; 11:58 PM
BEIJING - The BBC television report was airing a clip from Wednesday's Obama-Hu news conference at the White House, on the touchy topic of human rights. "A lot still needs to be done . . . ," Chinese President Hu Jintao started to say.
And then the television report went black.
Hu's state visit to the United States has prompted saturation media coverage in China, with largely upbeat reports heralding, in the words of one newspaper headline, "a new chapter in relations." There has been in-depth reporting on the trappings of the visit, including the red-carpet welcome, the star-studded guest list for the state dinner and the $45 billion in deals signed for U.S. exports.
But largely missing from official Chinese news media reports of the trip - and from the foreign television spots that are subject to government censorship - has been the back-and-forth between President Obama and Hu over human rights.
At the news conference, after initially avoiding a reporter's question, Hu made what was considered an unusual allowance, saying China needed to make more progress in protecting its citizens' individual freedoms.
"China is a developing country with a huge population, and also a developing country in a crucial stage of reform," Hu said. "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."
Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency that provides most of the reports for local news media, mentioned only in passing that Obama and Hu held a joint news conference. There was no transcript or details of the questions and answers.
Xinhua's English-language Web site, aimed at foreign audiences, did have a section on human rights but omitted Hu's concession. It quoted Hu as saying, "China recognizes and respects the universality of human rights. And at the same time, we do believe that we also need to take into account the different national circumstances when it comes to the universal value of human rights."
Several other Web sites did report Hu's comments on human rights, including QQ.com, Sina.com and 163.com. But QQ.com and Sina.com did not allow readers' comments after their stories.
The 163.com site had dozens of comments, but readers in China were able to see only two of them.
Thursday's edition of People's Daily, the official organ of China's ruling Communist Party, was published hours later than usual to give the paper time to include details of Hu's trip half a world away. The newspaper devoted its entire first two pages to the Obama-Hu summit but also made no mention of the human rights issue.
The news conference was not covered live on CCTV, the main Chinese television station, and there was no video available Thursday on the CCTV Web site. Video of the full news conference, however, was available on the Web site of the smaller Hong Kong-based Phoenix television station.
Much of the coverage here centered on the pageantry of the state visit, including the 21-gun salute, the rope line and the fact that one of Obama's daughters was on hand to greet the Chinese president.
Earlier this week, Chinese news media gave prominent coverage to Hu's written answers to questions from The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal - reflecting how little Chinese actually hear from their own leaders outside of formal speeches.
The People's Daily on Tuesday ran the transcript of Hu's answers across most of the front page, under a huge headline saying, "Hu Jintao accepts a written interview from The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post."
Most of the stories focused on Hu's positive characterization of the Sino-U.S. relationship and on the need for the two sides to find "common ground" and avoid Cold War-style rhetoric.
Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.