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China: Reporter steps up to Obama and asks for trouble

What happens when Asians suddenly aren't quiet and agreeable? If China needs to earn respect as a responsible world power, when it comes to getting what they want, should its men and women ask politely, demand assertively, or join the army to go protect the country's economic and political interests around the world?

We find something of an answer in Rui Chenggang, the face of Capitalist China and CCTV anchor who created an enormous stir this week after he stepped forward to ask American president Obama a question when Korean reporters wouldn't, ostensibly what any reporter should have done, in what otherwise might have been a press conference cut too short.

Rui Chenggang at the Obama press conference in Korea

Party paper Southern Daily ran an editorial calling Rui “the greatest obstacle to China's rise” [zh] (‘well then who else is supposed to give it momentum?’, quips one reader), but then early bridge blogger Isaac Mao also mentions that:

大家不要误以为西方也都笑话芮成钢,他其实是耶鲁的座上宾,也经常被一些西方组织认为是中国的未来希望

People shouldn't mistakenly think that the West is all laughing at Rui Chenggang. He was, after all, a Yale World Fellow, and some Western organizations tend to see him as the hope for China's future.

Here's the video of the exchange between Rui and Obama:

In his own defense, Rui has written on his Sina blog that things off-camera weren't exactly as has been reported, translated here by Roland Soong at EastSouthWestNorth:

The live global broadcast of Obama's press conference was not supposed to have any questions from non-American reporters. Obama pointed only at the White House reporters who traveled with him. This is Obama's custom. But he decided at the spur of the moment to add an extra question at the very end. He emphasized that he wanted the question to come from the Korean media. But after waiting for a while, no Korean reporter raised his/her hand. This is rare for Obama, and somewhat embarrassing.

This was the fifth time that I have seen Obama. In order to bring the proceedings to a close, as well as seizing the opportunity to have emerging countries have a say, I raised my hand from the first row and I stood up. I reminded him that I am from China. He waited a little bit longer but still no Korean reporter raised a hand. So we began to talk. Afterwards a white reporter who claims to be working in Korea raised his hand and asked a question. So Obama's gesture towards Korea was finally accepted.

American president Obama laughing nervously

The atmosphere at the scene was quite light-hearted. People were humorous. G20 was being held in Asia for the first time, and also the first time outside the eight developed countries. It would be regrettable if the American President's press conference did not have any voice from Asia. I wanted to see the interaction with the Korean reporters too but nobody was talking. No authentic Korean reporters raised their hands. We Asian reporters may be very professional in our work, but we are somewhat shy compared to our American and European colleagues.

Actually, it is no big deal to ask an American president a question. Obama faces various kinds of challenges, even verbal attacks, on a daily basis. This is part of his job. However, he deals mostly with American media. In Asian countries (including Japan), there is a lot of room for improvement in terms of soft power, international communication and influence as compared to the developed nations. The top-level international news conferences are frequently hosted and dominated by American and European media. But things are changing now, as we in Asia (especially the Chinese media workers) are rapidly internationalizing. I have sensed this strongly while crossing the globe over the last couple of years. Our support comes from our rising national power in these times.

Note in the video how Obama initially mistakes Rui for a Korean reporter? In situations like these, asks Sina blogger Wang Luzhi, now studying in the US, who's really representing who?:

结合芮成钢的采访,“他走前停下来时,我第一个举手,后来他说韩国媒体,我又把手放下。结果全场一片沉默,每隔一秒,就多一秒尴尬。后来,奥巴马和我有一个眼神交流。他的意思是,你刚才不是举手了?很短的一瞬间。我想奥巴马也没见过这阵势。他把目光放在我身上。”

To summarize an interview with Rui Chenggang, “as he stopped, just as he was about to leave, I was the first to put my hand up. Then he said the question was for Korean media, so I put my hand down again. Then, the whole floor was silent, with awkwardness growing by the second. Then, Obama and I caught glances; he seemed to be saying, didn't you just have your hand up? This all went by quickly, but I don't think Obama has ever encountered a situation like that before. Then he just kept looking at me.”

哪里出问题了么?

So what went wrong?

1、现场大多是西方尤其是美国记者。在美国看总统在国外的新闻,多半只能看到美国记者为自己总统,大概他们也有需要和谐的内容。芮成钢说represent亚洲,有这种场合的背景。我在学校里也有时被代表亚洲,因为美国人基本分不出中日韩国人的区别,有课程讨论就会说一句,亚洲的代表也说一下观点。何况依前面视频来看,他即是凭记者的直觉抢新闻,也是缓解一个冷场,基本的礼节并没有失。说到代表亚洲,是因为奥巴马的设问有前提。

Most of the reporters there were American. If you follow American news when the president's overseas, almost all you ever see are American journalists and the president, which means I guess even they have some content that needs to be harmonized. When Rui Chenggang says he represents Asia, it's against this sort of a backdrop. I get represented by Asia all the time here at school, because Americans can't tell the difference between Chinese, Japanese or Korean people; when we have course discussions, they say their part, then the representatives from Asia share their views. In any respect, judging from the video above, he was merely relying on his reporter's intuition in gathering news, but also helping to break the silence in the room, nothing discourteous about it. As for representing Asia, that's just in response to how Obama phrased the question.

2、中国追求没有规矩不成方圆,而有了规矩,也就必定陷于方圆之内。西方追求show out,说了也许说错,不说永远没有人意识到你的存在。如果所有人都是循规蹈矩,其实倒也无伤大雅。但两种价值观碰撞时,后者的强势沟通会让前者阵线溃败。我们想:这不合礼法。人家想:这高效直接有成果。亚洲记者普遍腼腆,因为新闻发布会本就是西方发明的,亚洲是皇帝宣旨众人听。

2. China seeks for things to be done in an orderly fashion, holding that when standards are upheld, success is guaranteed. The West, on the other hand, favors showing off, and I could be wrong, but holds that if you don't speak up, people won't even notice you exist. No harm is done if everyone is perfectly well-behaved, but when these two sets of values collide, the latter's tendency toward strong discussion easily overpowers the former. At which point we think: total violation of etiquette. Meanwhile they're thinking: efficiency brings direct results. Asian journalists in general are quite shy, because the notion of a press conference to begin with is an invention of the West; Asia, on the other hand, is where emperors speak and the public listens.

3、芮成钢这一代,我们这一代,年轻人时钟在接触世界,不断成长。我们越接近西方,越渴望文化的复兴。在国外被当成日本人并不是开心的事,确实经常发生的事。向世界发出声音,我个人欣赏他。

一些激动情绪,我想大家都能理解吧。我们被代表怕了。但是,断章取义更可怕。

3. For Rui Chenggang's generation, our generation, youth are in constant negotiation with the world, continually learning to grow. As we grow closer to the West, the stronger our desire to experience our own cultural revival. Of course I'm not happy when I'm overseas and people think I'm Japanese, and that definitely does happen often. The voice I want sent out to the world is, personally, I quite admire Rui.

I'm a bit agitated, I hope everyone can understand. Sure, we don't like being represented, but taking things out of context is even worse.

Also check out this hilarious parody interview from 2008 with Rui and American comedian Rob Riggle:

11 comments

  • I met Chenggang Rui at the 2006 Asia Society Young Leaders Summit in Seoul. He somehow was put and he gladly accept the position of China representative by the organizer back then… Indeed he is confident and perhaps arrogant, however his style is not only endorsed in China but also in the international club culture of “country representative”.

  • I think it’s interesting what a big deal is made of the awkwardness of that moment when actually the question he eventually asked was not so tough or controversial (it was about how Obama deals with different interpretations of his economic policies, right?). It’s also surprising to me to hear that Korean journalists would be “shy”. Huh?

    • Although I can’t disagree on the theory that the ‘shyness’ was one of the elements that caused the silence, I believe the pressure to speak in English and the peer pressure are the two major causes. Many Korean journalists would have wasted their time looking around how the other Korean journalists react and figuring out which kinds of behavior would be seen appropriate. And lots, lots of Koreans are under pressure and feel that all of them should be able to answer/ask in English in case of ‘important’ international conferences.

  • It’s great that this article mentioned the awkward silence caused by Korean journalists’ hesitation. Many Korean media poured angry reports on his rude behavior, which many of them sounded like ‘a Chinese guy’s taking away a precious, rare chance (to speak to Obama) from Koreans.’ It’s always nice to hear a different side of story.

  • zhuzidi

    Arrogant d-bag. He didn’t have an actual explanation of why he said “represent”, just some glossed over semantics. If some American reporter said he represented all of North America, you bet there’d be a ton of angry Canadians and Mexicans.

  • gie

    In the Philippines, we can find many Korean students because they also want to learn English and speak it fluently. ‘Shy’ was not appropriate, I think, it’s about how to express it in English. If the situation was in the Philippines, it will surely be different…

  • Isn’t this whole discussion “much todo about nothing?” This is a good example of the silliness of today’s press. Instead of focusing on the topic, this whole link is about awkwardness of the moment. My fellow journalists — please focus on issues and not whether your feelings were hurt.

  • Jennifer Mc Cleary

    What’s the big deal here? I can see how Rui was rude but get off it. I was expecting something so much worse! I have to agree with Alan. Don’t we have more important things to focus on?

  • […] few days ago, Chinese journalist Rui Chenggang represented Asia in asking a question, angering many netizens. Actually, I wasn't bothered much by it, because […]

  • […] few days ago, Chinese journalist Rui Chenggang represented Asia in asking a question, angering many netizens. Actually, I wasn’t bothered much by it, because […]

  • […] few days ago, Chinese journalist Rui Chenggang represented Asia in asking a question, angering many netizens. Actually, I wasn't bothered much by it, because […]

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