A tarmac tiff between US and Chinese officials over media access highlighted the gap between views on human rights and press freedom, US President Barack Obama said on Sunday after the incident soured the start of a global summit. China’s government minders gave American National Security Advisor Susan Rice and other US officials trouble over press access to the US leader’s arrival in the eastern city of Hangzhou.
The dispute concluded in a nationalistic eruption from one official, who shouted “This is our country! This is our airport!” at White House staffers as they tried to help American reporters position themselves to film Obama’s arrival. The outburst was caught on camera, in an awkward prelude to face-to-face talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his American guest.
Both leaders are eager to smooth over their differences and find areas of common cause as they seek to bolster their leadership credentials both abroad and at home. The incident was not a first for China, Obama said during a press briefing with new British Prime Minister Theresa May.
“We think it’s important that the press have access to the work that we’re doing. That they have the ability to answer questions,” he said, adding “we don’t leave our values and ideals behind when we take these trips.”
The differences are also on display in discussions with his Chinese counterpart, he said.
“When I bring up issues like human rights, there are some tensions there that perhaps don’t take place when President Xi meets with other leaders.”
Kerfuffles over press access are common in China, where the ruling Communist Party sees the media more as a tool for forwarding its political agenda than an independent check on governance. The country tightly controls its journalism, regularly censoring reporting on issues it deems sensitive or unflattering. Its approach is particularly apparent in Hangzhou, where a suffocating security presence is designed to avoid any disruption and protect China’s large political and financial investment in the summit.
Nevertheless, Obama took the tarmac incident in good humour, noting that the travelling White House juggernaut can be intimidating for any nation.
“Part of it is we also have a much bigger footprint than a lot of other countries,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of planes, a lot of helicopters, a lot of cars, a lot of guys. You know, if you’re a host country, sometimes it may feel a little bit much.”