- By Isaac Stone Fish
Isaac Stone Fish is associate editor at Foreign Policy. Previously a Beijing correspondent for Newsweek, he wrote stories on such subjects as the Dalai Lama’s effect on international trade, China’s love affair with rogue states, and crystal meth in North Korea. His articles have also appeared in the International Herald Tribune, the Economist, and the Los Angeles Times.
On Tuesday, Xi Jinping gave his first interview with foreign media since becoming chairman of the Chinese Communist Party in November. Xi spoke with journalists from Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — the five countries that make up the economically powerful BRICS nations. On his first official trip abroad since becoming president in mid-March, Xi will visit Russia and then South Africa for the fifth BRICS summit.
The rare interview with one of the world’s most powerful men seems newsworthy, but besides a brief mention in the Christian Science Monitor, I couldn’t find any major Western news outlet that picked up on his remarks. Even English-language Chinese media outlets (see here, here, and here) focused their coverage on the fact that Xi Jinping was giving an interview to foreign media before his trip, not on the newsworthiness of anything he said during the meeting. The Chinese-language edition of China’s Foreign Ministry website and a few other Chinese news outlets were the only places where I found a full transcript of the interview, or anything even like it. After reading it, it’s not hard to see why.
"The Chinese and the Africans have a long history of friendly relations. How do you evaluate China’s role and influence on Africa?" asked the South African journalist. He continued, "In the peaceful development of Africa, what role will China play? Apart from resources, in what other areas is China interested?" Xi responded by praising Sino-African ties, and expressing support for Africa’s development. The Indian journalist asked about China’s policy towards border disputes between the two countries, to which Xi responded that a resolution wouldn’t be easy, but "peace and tranquility should be maintained on the border."
The closest anyone came to asking a tough/interesting question was when the Brazilian journalist asked for personal information about Xi’s experiences governing China: "How many time can you spend with your family? Can you introduce to us your personal experience and hobbies" the reporter asked.
Xi said that governing China requires extreme carefulness and awareness, like "walking on thin ice, staring into the abyss," and that he liked to read. The questioner also asked who Xi thought would win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and Xi threw in a good-natured reference to Paul the Octopus.
I’m going by the Foreign Ministry’s transcript here (except for the India question), which may not be completely accurate. Perhaps one foreign journalist actually asked Xi a question without prefacing it with a statement about the illustrious history of his home country’s relationship with China. Perhaps one tried to ask about Xi’s family wealth, about disgraced former Politburo member Bo Xilai, about how exactly Xi planned to institute political reform, about whether he was worried that PLA generals would try to instigate war with Japan, and was ignored. But probably, the questions, very likely screened beforehand, were all insubstantial — which is why the rest of the world didn’t pay attention. If any of the journalists involved asked different questions, please do let me know.
On Sunday, many of Beijing’s foreign correspondents attended a press conference held by Li Keqiang, China’s new prime minister. (The New York Times wasn’t invited.) Peter Ford, the Christian Science Monitor‘s Beijing bureau chief, and the president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (an organization in which I was a board member in 2011) also attended. Ford writes in his newspaper that Li "seemed confident and relaxed, but like his predecessors, he answered only questions that journalists had submitted in advance, and that his press office had approved. At Chinese press conferences you learn which topics the government thinks are important and what message it wants to transmit to the citizenry from the questions that the authorities allow. But you don’t get much fresh information from the answers."
If any of the journalists in Xi’s interview — whose intimate setting seemed to offer a much better opportunity for asking unscripted questions — did decide to deviate from the script, they might not have had that opportunity in the future. Still, it’s a shame that we’re no closer to understanding Xi, other than knowing that he’s heard of Paul the Octopus.
"Having attended six of these annual charades," writes Ford, "and knowing how they work, it still astonishes me that the leader of a country such as China, which aspires to a serious place at the top table of world affairs, does not dare to take unscripted questions from journalists."