Howard French is the former Shanghai bureau chief for The New York Times. This is the second part of a two-part interview regarding the media’s coverage of Barack Obama’s recent trip to Asia. The first part of the interview can be found here.
“I am known for having had a pretty consistent focus on human rights in my work as a journalist, so the comments that will follow should not in any way suggest that I believe in a de-emphasis in human rights with regard to China. In fact, if the Obama administration had asked my opinion prior to this trip, I would have said this is a very good time to be upfront about human rights and there are a number of issues that deserve a very straightforward approach.
“But the problem with the way the press has covered this is there’s a kind of implicit premise in the complaint about the way that Obama avoided certain issues, human rights being one of them. So what are the big issues? Human rights—one of the big things he didn’t address in any vocal, public, in-your-face way—exchange rates, trade, Iran, those are the ones that come immediately to mind, I’m sure there are others. The implicit premise in the critical coverage that followed is misleading, I think. Maybe disingenuous is even a better word, because it seems to suggest that if Obama had pulled a Khrushchev and banged his shoe on the table on these issues and really jumped up and down and made a lot of noise, then this would have achieved a markedly different result for the better. I don’t think there’s any evidence of that. It may have made certain people in this society feel better about themselves, but if the goal is changing behaviors in China or obtaining political or diplomatic results with China, I think the evidence is the contrary. Where is it that we have had very vocal, remonstrative theatrics with China on thorny issues where China has laid down and simply done what we want to do simply because we’ve gotten loud about it? There are not a lot of examples you can point to.
“So Obama creates his own premise for the style of engagement that he’s beginning to undertake with China – emphasis on beginning - it’s his first trip to China, to East Asia as president. So he makes clear that he’s going to try a different approach to this. And we’re told he had a variety of private conversations on some of these important, sensitive issues, like human rights.
“The press coverage is misleading on both scores. It doesn’t give a realistic impression of what past behavior was like, diplomatically speaking, and what it achieved when we were really vocal and remonstrative; and it also doesn’t—in this critical, immediate insta-pundit analysis of what Obama achieved—it doesn’t allow for the fact that he, himself, said what he was going to do before he got on the airplane, so to what extent did his behavior actually fit the pattern of his own announced style and agenda? It’s like the press is on its own script without reference to either history or Obama’s announced intentions.
“I watched the [student forum in Shanghai] live, late at night here, and I was very curious to see how it would go. My feelings sort of see-sawed throughout the event. It took me about thirty seconds to understand that Obama had walked into a real fix. All the students looked like the Stepford wives or something, these were robot people. They were perfectly scrubbed and dressed and it was just obvious to me that this was totally pre-arranged on the Chinese side. So I’m thinking, uh oh. How’s he going to handle this?’
“It got off to a slow start and I’m thinking this is really a missed opportunity on a number of levels. I didn’t know immediately, I found out subsequently, that Washington had been led to believe that there would be wider broadcast of this event within China than what happened. So that was a disappointment. But I thought there was something pretty astute about the way the [U.S.] ambassador [to China] lobbed that question about the Great Firewall and censorship in China to Obama. I thought that was good footwork on their part. So they walk into this thing and they’re getting questions of the order of, ‘So what’s your favorite color?’ and ‘Are you happy to be in Shanghai?’ These students had basically been prepped, with the exception of the Taiwan arms question, to give no opening for anything that would be troublesome from the official Chinese perspective. So they asked the most boring, milquetoast questions you could imagine.