Pardon Me?

Hu’s admission lost in translation

Yesterday’s White House press conference with President Obama and Chinese president Hu Jintao was a somewhat stilted affair, mostly due to the odd translation arrangement—rather than have questions simultaneously translated, the Chinese contingent had asked that questions, and answers, be translated after statements were finished (think something like the announcement of safety instructions at the beginning of a Lufthansa flight).

But stultifying though it was, the presser also underscored a key (if obvious and perennial) difference between the U.S. and the Chinese press. It wasn’t just that that many of the Chinese questions felt like cues for Hu to make several pre-prepared rather platitudinous statements—“What do you think that the two countries need to do to further increase the friendship and mutual understanding between the Chinese and American peoples?” asked one. And it wasn’t that the U.S. reports on the presser varied greatly from those in China, which were largely rose-colored, but we will get to that.

The presser was a good moment for the White House press corps because it showed that it was well equipped to push back, and to work together in the pushing.

Case in point: the first question of the press conference went to the Associated Press’s Ben Feller, who asked Obama how the U.S. could ally itself with such a repressive regime, and then asked Hu, “How do you justify China’s [human rights] record, and do you think that’s any of the business of the American people?”

Hu ignored the question and instead took a soft query from a journalist from China Central Television (CCTV)—“What do you think that the two countries need to do to further increase the friendship and mutual understanding between the Chinese and American peoples?” Fortunately, the next American questioner, Bloomberg’s Hans Nichols, did not let Hu off the hook. From the White House transcript of the press conference:

President Hu, first off, my colleague asked you a question about human rights, which you did not answer. I was wondering if we could get an answer to that question.

Hu claimed that “technical translation” and an “interpretation problem” were the reasons he did not initially respond. However, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest told Politico, “that the English-to-Mandarin translator, an experienced State Department translator, confirmed to the White House that Feller’s question was conveyed in full to Hu.” Hu did respond to Nichols’s question with this quote now doing the rounds across the globe (though not so much in China itself):

China is always committed to the protection and promotion of human rights. And in the course of human rights, China has also made enormous progress, recognized widely in the world.

China recognizes and also respects the universality of human rights. And at the same time, we do believe that we also need to take into account the different and national circumstances when it comes to the universal value of human rights.

Bloomberg was certainly impressed with their boy—they yesterday let several media reporters know about Nichols’s question—as well they should be. Dana Milbank at The Washington Post put it best when he wrote today:

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.

The differences between the two nations’ media approaches were further demonstrated in the aftermath of Hu’s comments. Most U.S. papers and TV news broadcasters front-ended their China coverage with Obama and Hu’s mentions of human rights, as well as the big trade deals that made up yesterday’s more material developments—see the Times and the Post and NBC’s Nightly News coverage for just three high-profile examples—and stressed the complications of negotiating with China. But human rights and those complexities were markedly absent from domestic Chinese coverage, according to several reports.

Singapore-based English-language daily The Strait Times reports that state-run CCTV’s nightly news program devoted most of its thirty-minute runtime to Hu’s U.S. visit, but “ignored” Hu’s admission that attention needed to be paid to human rights. “Most aspects of Mr Hu’s visit, including the welcoming ceremony on the White House lawn, talks with Mr Obama and former US president Bill Clinton, a joint press conference and an elaborate state dinner were covered in full,” reports The Strait Times.

Michael Sainsbury, China correspondent for national Australian broadsheet The Australian, further reported just how skewed China’s domestic coverage of the trip has been.

After yesterday’s meeting between the two presidents, Chinese media pitched the two countries very much as equals despite the US economy being four times larger and its military vastly more powerful.

“China and the United States agreed Wednesday to jointly establish co-operative partnership based on mutual respect and mutual benefit,” state-run Xinhua said. Reports focused on scripted comments from Mr Hu, relegating limited quotes from US President Barack Obama to the end of their stories.

One Xinhua headline read: “President Hu says important consensus reached in talks with Obama”, and another: “Obama says US welcomes China’s peaceful rise.”

Sainsbury explains that “only a handful of major media outlets, such as the People’s Daily and state run CCTV, are allowed to make their own reports on the Chinese leader’s activities—the rest must use Xinhua copy,” and noted that “no Chinese-language reports” carried Hu’s comments on human rights.

The Guardian’s Tania Branigan has a similar report, writing:

The Xinhua state news agency reported the Chinese president’s comments on human rights from the press conference, where he said China “is always committed to protection and promotion of human rights and has made enormous progress in this regard”. But the story appeared to be buried on news websites. There was no mention of the question that prompted the president’s reply or of the US president’s comments.

Branigan then went on:

Residents in Beijing said screens went blank when BBC and CNN broadcasts - available in some hotels and upmarket apartment complexes—discussed human rights and protests.

Many in China were keen to discuss Barack Obama’s remarks and the fact he raised the case of the jailed Nobel peace prize winner, Liu Xiaobo.

On Twitter—blocked in China but accessed by some users including many activists—one widely retweeted comment read: “American officials say Obama has raised the Liu Xiaobo issue with Hu and Obama reiterated that freedom of speech is a universal right. But the official refused to say how Hu answered the question.”

Bravo to the press corps for prying their admission out of Hu, regardless of who may have heard it. We will keep an eye on any reports of how the Chinese press covers today’s likely more volatile meeting between Hu and congressional leaders.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , ,