WASHINGTON — Comments and questions broke out on Twitter Wednesday when Chinese President Hu Jintao failed to answer a question from the Associated Press’s Ben Feller about his government’s controversial human rights record.
Bloomberg’s Hans Nichols followed up on his colleague’s challenge, which was originally directed at President Barack Obama with an expected response from Hu.
“Kudos to Bloomberg’s Hans Nichols for insisting Pres. Hu respond to AP’s human rights question he ignored earlier.,” tweeted Mark Knoller, the veteran White House correspondent for CBS Radio.
The broadcast of the exchange was blocked in China, according to CNN.
Hu admitted he was unable to hear the question the first time, due to technical difficulties with the translation equipment he and Obama were outfitted with. The resulting ordeal quickly prompted a spike in close to 1,000 tweets mentioning “Hu” just moments after, according to twitterstats.net.
When Hu finally did respond, his message of further progress on the issue of human rights was nothing short of scripted. It was Obama’s general tone of toleration of it that was not expected.
Obama said at the press conference that China’s growth would not only prove promising to the U.S., but to the Chinese as well by raising the overall standard of living—a development that would largely affect improvements in human rights.
“We welcome China’s rise,” Obama said. “We just want to make sure that that rise occurs in a way that reinforces international norms, international rules and enhances security and peace, as opposed to it being a source of conflict in the region or around the world.”
T. Kumar, Amnesty International advocacy director for Asia and the Pacific, said the rights Obama described should not, however, be confused with human rights.
“He’s talking about economic and social rights that should not be compromised for political rights,” Kumar said. “That’s only one part of human rights.”
Kumar did recognize that there is little Obama can do to prioritize the U.S.’s humanitarian relationship with China over their trade relationship.
“Obama is not strong enough to put human rights and trade in the same level of engagement,” Kumar said. “At least he’s mentioned that something else will come up.”
In fact, Hu struck a similar tone with Obama. “Our cooperation as partners should be based on mutual respect,” Hu said.
“Forge ahead, hand in hand”
Hu made the first public remarks of his state visit Wednesday morning at an arrival ceremony on the White House South Lawn, calling for China and the U.S. to “forge ahead, hand in hand.”
This air of partnership has dominated Chinese comments all week on topics including global security and recovery from the 2008 international economic crisis.
In an era of globalization, the U.S. and China are interdependent and their interests are intertwined in complicated ways, said Zheng Bijian, chairman of the China Institute for Innovation and Development. He spoke Wednesday morning at a conference sponsored by The Brookings Institution.
China’s recent actions have some policy analysts raising their eyebrows.
Charles Horner, senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, said Hu’s visit comes in the middle of a stream of development stretching back to when President Richard Nixon visited Chairman Mao Zedong in 1972.
Most recently, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the recession have worked to the advantage of the Chinese, he said.
Meanwhile, as the U.S. has suffered economic and security setbacks, China may have come on too strong as America’s up-and-coming successor in the world. The spirit of humility and teamwork the Chinese president conveyed Wednesday might be part of an effort to mend his country’s reputation.
“Their situation has been improved on the margin,” Horner said. “But in public they’ve been a bit inartful.”
Horner also points to the psychological balance between the two superpowers. China could be looking to correct that this week, as a country whose strength has always been in its ability to appear strong even as it is weak, he said.
Administration officials, Congress continue to press
In contrast, the U.S. has tried to take a more hard-line approach with China in recent weeks. Secretaries of the Treasury, Defense and State departments all have criticized Chinese policies and many people called upon Obama to continue pushing Hu on policy issues as the two leaders met one-on-one Wednesday before delivering a joint press conference.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing Wednesday morning on U.S.-China relations, in which it too was critical of China’s behavior.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the committee chairman, described China as acting like a mortgage company in its propping up of a U.S. economy still torn deeply by the recession.
Obama confirmed at his press conference with Hu that as of now the U.S. annually exports more than $100 billion in goods and services to China.
Ros-Lehtinen also denounced China’s lack of commitment to acting as a responsible stakeholder in the security of the world. She said China has fallen short by permitting its neighbor North Korea to continue sending missiles to Iran—two countries that each represent a persistent and developing threat to the security of the U.S.