Q&A: Former NYT Shanghai Bureau Chief Howard French

On how the press covered Hu Jintao's visit

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.

The moment from last week’s press conference that seems to have drawn most comment was President Hu’s admission that “a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights.” Is that as significant a development as we’re led to believe or have we seen this before?

The comment in its substance wasn’t altogether unprecedented; though it may be the first time a Chinese head of state has said something quite exactly that way. The Chinese premier Wen Jiabao may have said it before.

To put this very crudely, the head of state, President Hu Jintao, and the head of government, Premier Wen Jiabao, play a kind of good cop/bad cop in Chinese politics. It’s not a perfect metaphor because Hu Jintao is not perceived as evil or bad in any way in China, but he is very straight, and very withdrawn in terms of his personality. You don’t see much of the real man. He’s a figure who hovers above the fray.

Personality politics doesn’t really exist in China the way they do in the U.S. these days. But Wen Jiabao is the closest thing that one has to personality politics in the higher Chinese leadership. He’s the human face of the Chinese government. When there’s an earthquake or a disaster he’s very quickly on the scene, wading through the rubble, shedding tears, and empathizing with the victims. Wen Jiabao has allowed himself to push the envelope message-wise in a number of ways. He has said things that are pretty much in line with what Hu Jintao said about the distance that remains to be traveled for China in terms of human rights. But it was the first time a Chinese head of state has said anything like this, and it’s the first time it’s been said overseas as well.

What’s especially interesting for me about the way this played out is that the party, the propaganda ministry, and the state work very carefully to manage ideological messages both in China and outside of China. This statement strikes me as a very carefully calculated message that would appease an international audience and project an image of reasonableness and moderation and spontaneity and modernity, even, of the Chinese Communist Party. But intended entirely for external consumption.

Because the moment was not widely played in China.

It was essentially not played back in China. There were a few exceptions to that, a few websites were allowed to publish these comments. Typically in Chinese websites there is a section where people can log in and essentially blog instantaneous responses to the news. The few sites that were allowed to carry this news, as I understand it, did not allow commentary. The way this was played back home was totally controlled.

Some critics were disappointed that the American press, given a unique opportunity, did not ask President Hu about jailed dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. Were you similarly disappointed that nobody asked about Liu?

I would have liked to have heard a question on that. It would have been appropriate for both Obama and Hu to respond to this situation—Obama having been the immediate previous Nobel Peace Prize recipient. It strikes me as an obvious question, if awkward for him. And I think the Chinese head of state should have been brought to respond as well.

We talked about the unusual nature of this news conference—in the past, the Chinese leadership position has been to avoid spontaneous exchanges with the media like this. But this would not have come in any way as an unexpected question for Hu Jintao; it’s one of the most obvious questions you could ask. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad question—it’s an obvious question and a very good question.

Of course, the Chinese managed to have their cake and eat it too in a sense at the news conference. By conceding to have a news conference but not allowing for simultaneous translation, much of the allotted time of the news conference was consumed by the translation. All of these things are negotiated beforehand—negotiations that limit the time allotted and the number of questions. By the time the translation is done you’ve only gotten in two or three questions.

You don’t need to be thinking about China to see what the implications of this are. As any journalist understands, if you limit the scope of questions you’ve drained the press conference of its function. But beyond that immediate impact, you also prevent the asking of follow-up questions, which are very often the most productive questions in a news conference. Most leaders are pretty good at giving a canned first answer and being evasive and speaking on script. Good journalists know how to respond to that with a pointed or carefully crafted follow-up question that forces the politician to respond in a more productive way. The stage management of this event prevented all of that.

Did you trust that Hu did not understand the human rights question when it was first asked of him? That there was an “interpretation problem” and thus he skipped the question before being asked again?

It’s really hard to make a judgment on that. I could play it out either way. My gut tells me—and this is just my gut speaking—that he really did hear the question and that he thought the mechanics would work in the way I just described: the time would be limited and people would have to move on. He probably didn’t think that American journalists would be so forward as to do what the follow-up questioner did. If my gut is correct, he was being pretty clever. It didn’t work in the end but he tried his best. But in terms of technique, I’d give him high marks for it.

He’s taken a leaf out of some American presidents’ books.


The next part of this interview will be posted tomorrow.

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