Chinese President Hu Jintao’s four-day U.S. trip last week produced a number of takeaways: the two countries’ business communities will be increasingly entwined, though concerns still linger over China’s openness to foreign business; China expressed willingness to be tougher on Pyongyang; the Chinese president acknowledged that “a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights,”; and, unlike during Hu’s 2005 visit, this time America was happy to bring on the celebrities and the Maine lobster for an all-American state dinner.

The media coverage here ranged from cautious declarations of a “Newly Cooperative China” on the Times editorial page to Washington Post business writer Steven Pearlstein declaring in frustration, “Here we go again”—and then some. CJR assistant editor Joel Meares spoke to Howard French, former Shanghai bureau chief for The New York Times and now teacher of the Covering China seminar at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, about the media’s take on last week’s state visit—both here and in China. Part One of the interview focuses on the joint press conference held by President Hu and President Obama last week. Part two is here and focuses more broadly on the press’s coverage of the visit, and the differences between American and Chinese media more generally.

Much of the coverage of President Hu’s visit, outside of the business pages at least, focused on the joint press conference Hu and Obama gave at the White House on Wednesday. Many reports emphasized the significance of a Chinese president taking questions at an American-style presser. Why was this particular conference so significant?

The Chinese political style and Chinese political leaders have traditionally favored events that are much heavier on scripting. I am speaking very generally here; there have been exceptions—the previous leader, Jiang Zemin, was relatively more spontaneous. But in general, Chinese political leaders have avoided spontaneous exchanges, particularly in news conference mode. So it was important to try to foster this kind of exchange between the American media and the leader of the world’s most populous and fastest-growing major economy.

There is another element though. When Obama visited China in 2009, he was repeatedly frustrated by the way the Chinese media handled his visit. One of the objectives of an American presidential visit to China, traditionally, is trying to speak directly to the local people and any number of mechanisms were put in place during Obama’s visit to frustrate that aim. I find it a useful counterpoint: insisting that the Chinese leader avail himself of the opportunity to speak directly in a free exchange with the media on American soil, when Americans are trying to do the same thing essentially on Chinese soil.

But it didn’t seem a completely free exchange. There were elements of scriptedness in the press conference, right?

Sure. The Chinese, from what I understand, insisted that there not be simultaneous interpretation. This allows a number of ways of fudging the experience and dampening the spontaneity of it. First of all, if you get to listen for a couple of minutes while each question is translated, then you are not responding in an immediate and spontaneous way. You have time to figure and calculate, to weigh, to craft, and to self-edit, to a degree, that most human beings aren’t able to do in a real exchange or real conversation.

There was a very marked difference in the questions asked by the American and the Chinese journalists, hardball versus softball.

Chinese journalists are state employees for the most part. I don’t have a list of all the participants from the Chinese side but one can be sure that the Chinese press delegation was dominated by the main tenors of the official Chinese media. Xinhua News Agency, the main television channels, outlets like that. Some Chinese journalists really do push the envelope in China in a lot of what they do. But you would not be expecting the journalists who traveled for the trip to be challenging the Chinese head of state in a press conference, particularly on American soil.

Can you explain what the Xinhua News Agency is for those who are unfamiliar?

The Xinhua News Agency, or the New China News Agency, is the national news agency of China. It is owned by the government and supervised in a very direct and serious way by the Chinese Communist Party—most specifically by the ministry that has traditionally been known as the Ministry of Propaganda (which has been renamed). It is very explicitly an arm of the state and one of its many roles is propagating a certain Chinese line about the news of the day.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.