President Obama’s joint press conference with Chinese President Xi Jinping became momentarily awkward Wednesday when it appeared the Chinese leader was ready to dodge a question posed by an American journalist about his country’s press freedoms.
New York Times reporter Mark Landler, granted the first of two questions in the joint press conference, posed a question to Obama about whether the U.S. was looking to contain the rise of China and a separate query to Xi on if China believed the United States had played a role in fostering the recent protests in Hong Kong.
Landler also asked the Chinese president about Beijing’s decision to block visa renewals for American journalists, including his colleagues at the Times, seeking to work within China.
But after Obama concluded answering Landler's questions, Xi simply called on a member of the Chinese media. The Chinese president then read his response to the question from a paper on his podium, prompting speculation the question was planted by China’s state-controlled media.
The move drew immediate complaints from the U.S. press corps.
"I'll just say it — regardless of blowback — President Xi is a coward for not answering US press question," tweeted Fox News White House correspondent Ed Henry. "What are you scared of, sir?"
It also threatened to deepen a diplomatic rift between Beijing and Washington. White House officials for weeks lobbied the Chinese for the joint press conference at the request of American reporters, who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to travel to Beijing for the summit.
China resisted until the last minute, and then appeared to institute its own rules for the proceedings. Just before the presidents approached their podiums, a Chinese government official said that each leader would only answer a question posed by a member of their home country’s press.
That format is a break from normal protocol. Customarily, two reporters from each country are permitted to ask both leaders a question after bilateral talks.
But while the situation appeared headed for diplomatic embarrassment, at the last minute, Xi swung back to Landler’s questions. He said he had “a candid discussion with President Obama on human rights issues” and that China had “made enormous progress in its human rights.”
“That is a fact recognized by all the people in the world,” Xi said.
He also said China "protects normal rights of media organizations in accordance with law,” suggesting Times reporters had acted improperly to lose their visas.
"Perhaps we should look into the problem to see where the cause lies,” Xi said.
And while a refusal by Xi to answer the question would have been interpreted as a diplomatic slight, the White House's decision to allow Landler to ask the question also appeared provocative.
Earlier this year, the White House said it was “deeply concerned” by China’s treatment of foreign journalists after Austin Ramzy, a Times reporter, was forced to leave the country. Ramzy’s blocked visa renewal came after the Times and Bloomberg reported about the vast wealth of top Chinese officials, including Xi.
The incident initially seem as if it would overshadow what was a productive summit for the two presidents, including a landmark agreement on climate change, an extension on travel visas between the countries and the lifting of tariffs on technology products.
In remarks before the question-and-answer session, Xi praised a “constructive and productive discussion” that he called a “new model of major country relations.”
Obama acknowledged there were “differences” between the countries, raising concerns on human rights, intellectual property and currency manipulation.
But Obama praised the “extraordinary growth in the ties between our two countries” and said the leaders had a “common understanding about how the relationship between our two nations can move forward.”
"When we work together, it’s good for the United States, it’s good for China, and it’s good for the world,” Obama said.