November 10, 2017 16:31 GMT by nytimes.com

The Last Time President Xi Took a Question From an American Correspondent? 2014, and Yup, It Was Me

The Last Time President Xi Took a Question From an American Correspondent? 2014, and Yup, It Was Me

The White House’s choice of The New York Times was laden with symbolism.

BEIJING — When President Trump and President Xi Jinping turned away from their flower-draped lecterns here on Thursday without taking questions from reporters, the sense of a missed opportunity spread through the cavernous room in the Great Hall of the People.

American presidents typically use such visits to persuade inaccessible, often autocratic, foreign leaders to face the news media. I was a beneficiary of that custom in 2014, when Mr. Xi stood next to President Barack Obama in the same building, having grudgingly agreed to take two questions — one from a Chinese and one from an American correspondent.

Mr. Obama’s aides had haggled for weeks with Chinese officials to extract that agreement. They were so driven, in part, because Mr. Obama had come under sharp criticism in 2009, during his first visit, when the Chinese did not allow questions during his appearance with Mr. Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. (Journalists had been able to ask questions during visits by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.)

And so, on Nov. 12, 2014, as I was preparing to join my colleagues for the bus ride from our hotel to the Great Hall of the People, I was pulled aside by Eric H. Schultz, then Mr. Obama’s deputy press secretary, who told me to expect to be called on at the news conference.

The White House’s choice of The New York Times was laden with symbolism. At the time, the Chinese government had declined to renew the visas of several Times correspondents in China as a reprisal for its coverage of the financial dealings of Chinese leaders and their families.

Asking questions of a president is nerve-racking under any circumstances. But when I heard my name called by the press secretary, Josh Earnest, in the Great Hall, it felt like stepping to the plate at Yankee Stadium.

I stood up and, with camera bulbs flashing, asked Mr. Xi two questions: Did he view Mr. Obama’s Asia pivot as a threat to China? And would China ease its refusal to give visas to correspondents in light of a broader visa agreement it had just signed with the United States?

I also asked Mr. Obama a somewhat long-winded question about the rise of anti-American sentiment in China, which prompted him to say, “Come on, Mark,” and joke, after I was finished, that he had forgotten my question (I assumed that was for the benefit of his host).

At first, President Xi looked as if he was going to simply ignore the impudent foreigner. He instructed the moderator to move on, taking a scripted question from a Chinese state-owned paper. Mr. Obama, who was clearly eager to hear Mr. Xi’s answer, shot me a glance and a theatrical shrug, the presidential equivalent of “nice try, buddy.”

It turned out that Mr. Xi was merely biding his time. After he answered the Chinese journalist, he circled back to me and delivered a curt lecture. No, he said, the pivot was not about containment. And the visa problems of The Times were of our own making.

China protected freedom of expression, he said, but “media outlets need to obey China’s laws and regulations. When a car breaks down on the road, perhaps we need to get off 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,” he concluded. “The party which has created a problem should be the one to help resolve it.”

As the White House press corps filed out of the room, one of my colleagues joked that he hoped the Chinese would allow me to leave the country. The Chinese media reported that I had violated the ground rules by directing a question to Mr. Xi, rather than only to Mr. Obama. (The White House did not instruct me to address only the American president.)

The whole negotiation was somewhat opaque, Mr. Earnest recalled this week. Even as he stood next to the leaders in the Great Hall that day, he said he was not sure the Chinese would follow through on the agreement.

The episode apparently did not sit well with the Chinese. On Thursday, Mr. Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said, “It was at the Chinese insistence there were no questions.”

Former aides to Mr. Obama and Mr. Bush criticized the Trump White House for not trying harder.

“They always insist, Sarah,” Susan E. Rice, who served as Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, said in a tweet. “The trick is to use diplomacy to extract that concession as a matter of principle, despite their resistence.”

Brad Dayspring, deputy director of press advance for Mr. Bush, tweeted, “Never got everything we pushed for, but always expanded access from Chinese demands & ensured questions were taken alongside Chinese President. It’s an important demonstration of American press freedoms.”

In Tokyo and Seoul, Mr. Trump took questions with the leaders of Japan and South Korea. But striking a blow for press freedom did not seem high on his list of priorities in Beijing. He did not say whether he had pressed Mr. Xi behind closed doors on human rights issues.

Mr. Obama, by contrast, got mileage out of the episode. Two days later, he was standing next to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy leader, in the garden of her lakeside house in Yangon, and brought up the tense Q. and A. in the Great Hall of the People.

“When I am traveling, it is important as the president of the United States to not just talk about our interests, but also to talk about our values,” Mr. Obama said. “Sometimes it has an impact; sometimes it doesn’t.”

“Although I was impressed that Mark Landler got an answer to his question from President Xi,” he added. “It might not have been the one he was expecting, but he did end up taking the question. So you just keep on chipping away and seeing if we can make progress.”

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