There was much speculation coming into Chinese President Hu Jintao’s appearance at the White House on Wednesday about how he would handle the inevitable questions about human rights in China during a rare appearance in front of U.S. reporters.
At first, it appeared as if Hu, who refused to take any questions during a joint appearance with Obama when the U.S. president visited China last year, would just ignore them.
Hu did not answer an initial question directed at him by an Associated Press reporter, but was asked a second time about the topic by a Bloomberg News reporter.
Hu gave a somewhat confusing answer at first, claiming he had not heard the first question, but then saying he thought the question about human rights was directed to President Obama.
When he did answer the question, Hu said that China has made “enormous progress” on human rights which has been “widely recognized in the world.”
He also said, however, that because China is a “developing country with a huge population,” they have “many challenges in economic and social development.”
“A lot still needs to be done in China,” Hu said. “We will continue our efforts to improve the lives of the Chinese people.”
The confusion around the first question was caused in part, at least according to the Chinese leader, by the language barrier and translation.
Ben Feller with the Associated Press got the first question of the press conference. He asked President Obama, who stood four feet to Hu’s left in the White House East Room, “Could you explain to the American people how the United States could be so allied with a country that is known for treating its people so poorly, using censorship and force to oppress its people?”
Feller then turned to Hu and asked, “How do you justify China’s record and do you think that’s any of the business of the American people?”
Obama answered first, and lightened the mood by answering another question Feller had thrown into the mix about the U.S. ambassador to China, former Republican Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has been rumored to be a potential presidential nominee who could challenge Obama in 2012.
“I’m sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary,” Obama said with a smile, drawing loud laughter from reporters.
But then Obama answered the human rights question with tact and subtlety, expressing disagreement with China on core human rights views, but allowing that they are a different culture with a different history.
When Obama finished answering, all in the room turned to hear Hu’s answer. But he said nothing, and the English to Chinese translator began speaking into the microphone.
This was confusing because during opening statements, each leader’s comments were translated simultaneously and could be heard using headsets distributed to both leaders, their staffs and the press.
But apparently, during the question and answer session, the translation set up changed. The translator appeared to then repeat the entirety of Obama’s answer into Chinese.
When the translator finished, Hu called on a Chinese reporter, and did not answer Feller’s question.
After the Chinese reporter’s question had been asked and answered, Bloomberg’s Hans Nichols stood and asked Hu to answer the question that he had not answered, and finally got a response.