Chinese President Xi Declines To Directly Answer Tough US Questions

U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, speak during a joint news conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Nov. 12, 2014.PlayPablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo
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It’s what you didn’t hear at President Obama's joint press conference with Chinese President Xi that stands out most.

Xi, who rarely takes questions from the press, refused to directly answer several very tough questions from the New York Times about Obama’s Asia pivot and access for foreign journalists, surprising even the president, who looked at the U.S. press and just shrugged.

While not entirely unexpected, it was quite a sight to see.

U.S. President Barack Obama places his hand on his chest as the U.S. national anthem is played at a welcome ceremony with Chinese President Xi Jinping inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Nov. 12, 2014.Ng Han Guan/AP Photo
U.S. President Barack Obama places his hand on his chest as the U.S. national anthem is played at a welcome ceremony with Chinese President Xi Jinping inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Nov. 12, 2014.

President Obama had just finished talking at length about the areas where the US and China can work together and defending his interests in the region, saying he wanted to “debunk” the notion that his administration’s “pivot to Asia” is about containing China.

“Our strong relationship with China is at the heart of our pivot,” Obama said.

U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands following the conclusion of their joint news conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Nov. 12, 2014.Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands following the conclusion of their joint news conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Nov. 12, 2014.

Then, it was Xi’s turn to respond. He said nothing, acting as if the questions from the Times had never been raised. Instead, he went directly to a question, no doubt pre-screened, from the Chinese press.

Xi did eventually briefly address foreign press access in China, pointing the finger back at the press.

“China protects our citizen’s freedom of expression and the normal rights and interests of media organizations in accordance with the law. On the other hand, media outlets need to obey China’s laws and regulations,” Xi explained at the very end of his answer to the question from the Chinese press.

“When a car breaks down on the road, we need to get under the car to see where the problem lies. And when a certain issue is raised as a problem there must be a reason. In Chinese we have a saying, ‘the party which has created the problem should be the one to resolve it.’ So perhaps we should look into the problem to see where the cause lies,” he said.

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, smiles after a group of children waved flags and flowers to cheer him during a welcome ceremony with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Nov. 12, 2014.Andy Wong/AP Photo
U.S. President Barack Obama, right, smiles after a group of children waved flags and flowers to cheer him during a welcome ceremony with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Nov. 12, 2014.

The New York Times’ Mark Landler also asked Xi a pointed question about permits for foreign journalists, moment after Obama said he has pressed Xi on human rights issues during their two days of meetings. The New York Times has been banned in China for years, after writing a story critical of the government.

China has gone to great lengths to carefully craft and choreograph Obama and Xi’s appearances together. But as is often the case with these summits, it’s what happens on the sidelines and what you don’t hear that’s often the most interesting.