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Is Mike Wallace the reason Chinese leaders don’t give interviews?

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kClOxThPXHI%5D Hu Jintao, China’s president for the last decade, is the first leader of China since the Empress Dowager Cixi (who died in 1908) to refuse to speak with foreign press. Chiang Kai-Shek gave interviews, Mao Zedong pontificated to Edgar Snow; Deng Xiaoping joked with foreign reporters while expounding on his pragmatic philosophy.  Even ...

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kClOxThPXHI%5D

Hu Jintao, China’s president for the last decade, is the first leader of China since the Empress Dowager Cixi (who died in 1908) to refuse to speak with foreign press. Chiang Kai-Shek gave interviews, Mao Zedong pontificated to Edgar Snow; Deng Xiaoping joked with foreign reporters while expounding on his pragmatic philosophy.  Even Hua Guofeng, Mao’s short-lived successor, chatted with a British journalist. China’s current premier Wen Jiabao has sat down with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria twice for a relatively gentle round of questioning but the top leader, and the other members of China’s ruling council the Politburo Standing Committee, have stayed silent.

More than any other reporter, Mike Wallace, the charmingly aggressive 60 Minutes correspondent who passed away this Saturday at the age of 93, may be the reason for Hu’s reticence. A sit-down with Wallace was rarely a pleasant experience for world leaders — particularly autocrats: he lectured Yassir Arafat on violence, challenged Vladimir Putin on democracy, and suggested to Ayatollah Khomeini that he might be a lunatic and a ‘disgrace to Islam.’ But his 2000 interview with former Chinese President Jiang Zemin may have played a role in convincing Jiang’s successor of the value of keeping his mouth shut.

In contrast to Hu, Jiang was a flashy (for a Chinese leader) former Shanghai Party secretary, who sang karaoke on state visits and recited the Gettysburg address to foreigners. He told Barbara Walters in 1990 that the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre was “much ado about nothing,” and Lally Weymouth in 1998 that “I really don’t know what kind of threat China poses” to India.

Wallace’s genius was the ability to unblinkingly chastise power. Even during the aired pleasantries, Wallace looks unimpressed with Jiang. During minute 2 of the hour-long interview, aired days before Jiang’s 2000 U.S. visit, Wallace tells Jiang “shorter answers, please. More concise” and a touch of panic breaks through Jiang’s placid smile.

One of the benefits of China’s state-managed media system for its leaders is that journalists cannot embarrass them. Hu comes across far more introverted than Jiang, even during prepared Chinese media interviews. In one netizen conducted interview in 2008 hailed as “startling,” Hu answered three questions about his Internet habits. (In case you were wondering, he said “because I’m pretty busy, it’s not possible for me to go online every day”). It’s a safe way to appear human.

Jiang had to account for the sins of his administration: Wallace calls him a dictator, criticizes him for cracking down on the banned-in-China spiritual movement Falun Gong, and chides him for his lack of military service. When Jiang waxed about Sino-US relations, Wallace responded that “there’s no candor” in his answer.

Wallace chased Jiang to see if he would admit to admiring the courage of the student who stood down the tank during the student uprising in Tiananmen Square:

Jiang: He was never arrested. I don’t know where he is now. Looking at the picture I know he definitely had his own ideas.

Wallace: You have not answered the question, Mr. President. Did a part of Jiang Zemin admire his courage?

Jiang: I know what you are driving at, but what I want to emphasize is that we fully respect every citizen’s right to freely express his wishes and desires. But I do not favor any flagrant opposition to government actions during an emergency. The tank stopped and did not run the young man down.

Wallace: I’m not talking about the tank. I’m talking about that man’s heart, that man’s courage, that man, that lonely man, standing against that.

Jiang refused to answer the question, looking stubbon and weak. Investment banker and China watcher Robert Kuhn in his book How China’s Leaders Think wrote that “going one-on-one with Mike Wallace was daring and dangerous but Jiang Zemin’s down to earth, open and thoughtful tone scored well.” To me, it seems like a lesson to Chinese leaders on the benefits of staying home and keeping quiet.

Jiang also recited lines from the Gettysburg address for Wallace, who used it as a chance to press the president on the autocratic nature of his rule. “Why is it that Americans can elect their national leaders, but you apparently don’t trust the Chinese people to elect your national leaders?” Jiang, who Deng Xiaoping appointed with consensus from a small group of elderly party leaders, responded unconvincingly, “I am also an elected leader, though we have a different electoral system.”

Explaining power dilutes it. Now Hu is silent.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish
Tag: China

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