Trump, China bond over disdain for the free press

U.S. presidents typically insist on taking questions from the press while in China. Not this time.

U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping attend at a state dinner at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017. CREDIT: Thomas Peter/Pool Photo via AP
U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping attend at a state dinner at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017. CREDIT: Thomas Peter/Pool Photo via AP

During an event in Beijing on Thursday, President Trump broke with decades of precedent, refusing to allow questions from reporters. The president, who is currently on a 12-day trip across Asia, has spent the past few days meeting with Chinese premier Xi Jinping, whose government is known for its efforts to control the press.

During a conference billed as a news briefing, Trump appeared alongside Xi but failed to respond to queries from the media. When asked about the decision, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders explained the rationale behind the move.

“It was at the Chinese insistence there were no questions today,” Sanders said.

Xi rarely takes questions from press and media repression by the Chinese government is common (according to Freedom House, China is home to one of the most restrictive media environments in the world). But U.S. presidents typically challenge that norm while visiting China. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush insisted on taking questions from reporters at their respective press conferences. When President Barack Obama visited China in 2014, Xi, under duress, took one lone question from a member of the press belonging to a Chinese state newspaper. (He ignored another question from a U.S. reporter, who asked about visas for U.S. journalists.)


But Trump — who has spent much of his presidency attacking the press, calling reporters the “enemy of the American people” and accusing numerous outlets of spreading “fake news” — failed to do the same.

The president has a long history of criticizing China, accusing the nation of stealing U.S. jobs and even inventing climate change in an effort to out-pace the United States. But that attitude was conspicuously absent this week, as Trump and Xi inked contracts on the sale of products like soybeans and U.S. jetliners, and worked together to shut out the media.

Experts say none of this is surprising.

“Both of them are sensitive and vigilant about the media. They worry there might be some tricky questions that would embarrass them,” Zhang Lifan, an independent political analyst in Beijing, told the Miami Herald.

Trump’s decision to humor China’s press policies sparked criticism on social media. CNN anchor Jake Tapper detailed the numerous press briefings U.S. presidents have held in China where they have historically insisted on taking questions. Former White House press secretary Jay Carney noted the measures the Obama administration took in an effort to underscore the importance of media freedoms.


“I once had to tell Chinese officials that Pres. Obama would not show up for the press avail unless there would be a Q&A,” Carney tweeted. “They backed down.”

The decision to avoid press questions comes amid reports of Chinese censors scrubbing comments about Trump’s ongoing visit from various national internet forums. Many users reportedly asked about Trump’s seeming ability to access Twitter while in the country — something the Chinese government has barred its citizens from accessing themselves.

Trump’s trip to China is not the first time the president has taken his sentiments about the press to the world stage. In July, Trump answered questions alongside Polish president Andrzej Duda — who has signed off on government efforts cracking down on free speech and the media in his own country — calling the U.S. press “dishonest.”

“They have been fake news for a long time, and they have been covering me in a very, very dishonest way,”  Trump told Duda, referring to U.S. reporters. “Do you have that also, Mr. President?”

In response, Duda smiled and nodded in agreement.