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.