In Chinese media, ‘a lot to be done’ is left unsaid

It is fair to report, as Agence France-Presse and others did today, that Chinese media largely avoided President Hu Jintao’s comments on human rights during a Washington press conference on Wednesday. But the nature of the omission is significant. Chinese reports acknowledged that a discussion of human rights took place between Hu and U.S. President Barack Obama, but omitted the very phrase that dominated international coverage: “A lot still needs to be done,” Hu finally acknowledged to reporters. And the context–Hu being challenged during a public press conference–is absent.

What’s left is a neutered version of the conversation. For many Chinese readers, today’s news reports show Hu reiterating a commitment to human rights and repelling American interference.

China’s leaders increasingly promise to protect “citizens’ rights” as granted by the state, without making a broader commitment to internationally recognized human rights, a CPJ report found last October. In practice, the Communist Party shows no sign of changing its record of imprisoning journalists, restricting information, and imposing other limits on free expression.

Astute Chinese readers are used to looking between the lines for the action. So, too, with Wednesday’s coverage. Look at this paragraph from a story by the Beijing-based Caixin. (This is broadly paraphrased for clarity; Chinese readers can find the original on Caixin‘s website.) “Hu said China respects universal values, but has cultural differences. Obama said America respects cultural difference, but said he hoped universal values would be respected.”

There’s a lot going on in that word, “but.”

Internet users can use circumvention software to access international news reports that are otherwise blocked in China. A comment left below the Southern Metropolis Daily news report about the American visit complains: “Hu said China has a lot of work to do on human rights. That makes headlines all over the world, only in China no one brings it up.”