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metaphor because Hu Jintao is not perceived as evil or bad in any way in China, but he is very straight, and very withdrawn in terms of his personality.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.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.