WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump, whose presidential campaign featured plenty of tough talk about China, took a more cordial tone with Chinese President Xi Jinping while visiting Xi’s country this week.
“I give China great credit,” Trump — who once likened the U.S. trade deficit with China to “rape” and accused China of committing “the greatest theft in the history of the world” — said during a joint appearance with Xi on Thursday.
Another subject on which Trump apparently hasn’t offered China much resistance: freedom of the press.
On Thursday in Beijing, each leader made statements but did not take questions from the press — perhaps unsurprising, given Trump’s criticisms of the media and his attempts at infringing on press freedom at home, as well as his embrace of authoritarian leaders abroad.
But it was a sharp departure from prior U.S. presidents of both parties, whose administrations pushed back on China’s demands for curtailed access.
When asked by reporters covering Trump’s trip why he and Xi did not take media questions, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that “it was at the Chinese insistence there were no questions today.”
In 2009, President Barack Obama faced sharp criticism for not taking reporters’ questions on his first visit to the country. He did so when he returned in 2014.
“The Chinese try this every time. It’s a test of will and principle,” Obama’s first White House press secretary, Jay Carney, tweeted Thursday morning. ”Letting them dictate press access is an embarrassing capitulation.”
“They always insist, Sarah,” former United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice tweeted in response to Sanders. “The trick is to use diplomacy to extract that concession as a matter of principle, despite their resistence [sic].”
In 2014, the Obama administration fought to allow reporter questions for Obama’s joint press conference with Xi. In a famous exchange, Obama granted the only question to The New York Times’ Mark Landler, who asked Xi about press access.
“With respect to press attitudes towards America or me in particular, I am always working on the assumption that the press giving me a hard time is true wherever I go, whether in the United States or China,” Obama said. “That’s part of being a public official.”
Obama’s calling on Landler was intended to make a point. China had barred several of the Times’ foreign correspondents, as well as reporters from some other foreign outlets, from obtaining visas, in retaliation for the paper’s investigative reporting into Communist Party leaders. Since that reporting in 2012, the Chinese government has largely banned access to the Times’ website.
Xi appeared to ignore Landler’s question, before saying that “media outlets need to obey China’s laws and regulations.”
At a news conference during his first visit to China in 2002, Bush urged the country’s government to respect human rights and religious freedom.
“China’s future is for the Chinese people to decide. Yet no nation is exempt from the demands of human dignity,” he said. “All the world’s people, including the people of China, should be free to choose how they live, how they worship, and how they work.”
Trump, by contrast, has made little mention of these issues, mostly lavishing praise on his Chinese counterpart. And he agreed to work with “Beijing’s sweeping efforts to control the message of his heavily choreographed visit,” according to The Associated Press.
White House social media director Dan Scavino on Thursday used Chinese state media coverage to promote Trump’s visit.