Obama's style in China

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MARCO WERMAN: This is The World. Not only Nixon can go to China. Since that watershed event, every sitting American president except Jimmy Carter has made the trip. Now, it's President Obama's turn. The World's Mary Kay Magistad is following events from Beijing. And Mary Kay, Mister Obama recently described himself as, "America's first Pacific President." So, what are the kinds of activities he's been engaged in since arriving in China?

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: Well, so far, he's met with the Mayor of Shanghai, and more interestingly he had a town hall meeting of Chinese students in Shanghai. One of the highlights of that meeting is he told them that the free flow of information and an uncensored Internet is good for society. And more specifically, that for himself hearing criticism from people who don't like him, actually makes him a better leader.

WERMAN: Uncensored Internet doesn't sound like the kind of thing that would make Chinese leaders very happy, though.

MAGISTAD: Well, no. Nor did the town hall format itself. It went through a lot of negotiations. The Chinese were resisting having an unscripted, uncontrolled setting. And in the end, they refused to televise it live nationally even though they had hand picked the students and many of the questions. However, at least, you know, to their credit, they didn't block the Hong Kong-based Phoenix television, which broadcast it live, and that did reach many homes within China.

WERMAN: Okay, so what about talking about human rights in China? Has there been anything said by President Obama about that yet?

MAGISTAD: Certainly, that one comment about the free flow of information was connected to human rights, and he also said that people everywhere in the world should be able to have their human rights protected including ethnic minorities in the United States, in China, and in many other places. There are human rights advocates who think that he should have been even more specific, but who would probably at least be happy that he said as much as he did.

WERMAN: Is it too risky for the Obama Administration given all the other major issues at play right now? Is it too risky to get into human rights with the Chinese at this point?

MAGISTAD: Well, there is this big question about how the United States negotiates a new kind of relationship with China as an ascendant power. China pushes back a lot more now than it used to. So when you factor in the trade issues and the various regional geopolitical issues that the U.S. and China are trying to sort out, I think President Obama feels he can't lecture the Chinese on human rights. He has to have a conversation, he has to lead by example, and it's a different tone than previous presidents have taken.

WERMAN: And what are a couple of those other issues that you mentioned, Mary Kay?

MAGISTAD: Well, there are many. President Obama has said on this trip that few of the world's major issues can be settled without the United States and China, and tomorrow, they'll be discussing many of them. There is Iran's and North Korea's nuclear programs, the Afghan/Pakistan situation, climate change, although it's now been agreed there'll be no formal agreement in Copenhagen, but there is still a desire to at least move the ball forward. And then, there are trade and economic issues, ranging from Chinese concerns about what it sees as U.S. protectionism to U.S. concerns that China is still relying too much on American consumers buying up cheap Chinese goods.

WERMAN: So loads to talk about and this meeting tomorrow in Beijing is a continuation of one of the world's most important dialogues between two leaders, Presidents Obama and Hu having met several times before. We're now going to hear a report from you, Mary Kay, where we will see one aspect of the difference between them.

MAGISTAD: And it has something to do with dialogue. Recently, Forbes Magazine has called these two leaders the two most powerful men on the planet. And they have very different approaches to connecting with their audience. So, President Obama and President Hu are kind of grounded in rhetorical traditions of their respective countries, and this piece takes a look at how each of them approaches the podium when they have something to say.

WERMAN: All right, The World's Mary Kay Magistad in Beijing. Here's that report.

MAGISTAD: President Obama was in full charm offensive mode at today's town hall meeting with students. He smiled and joked, he praised the students' English, and he told self-deprecating personal tales.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: And as my wife always reminds me when I complain that I'm working too hard, she says, "You volunteered for this job."

MAGISTAD: It's not what Chinese are used to seeing or hearing from their president. Hu Jintao's public appearances tend to be a little stiff.


MAGISTAD: This was Hu speaking recently at the United Nations about climate change. It's a formal delivery with little emotion, and with I've come to think of as the Communist pause. Listen for it.


MAGISTAD: That pause is even more pronounced in the formal appearances of Premier Wen Jiabao.


MAGISTAD: You could almost go out and get a cup of coffee between phrases. And it's not just the top leaders in China who do this. I've heard the Communist pause from all ranks in news conferences and in interviews. Professor Andy Kirkpatrick of the Hong Kong Institute of Education has studied the history of Chinese rhetoric. He noticed the same thing when he was a student in China in the mid-1970s.

PROFESSOR KIRKPATRICK: Almost like set phrases, pause, more set phrases, to underline the kind of knowledge, as it were, that is being passed down. That's the way I always used to feel about it, that here was a kind of being passed down to you. And we're going to spell it out, and we're going to be very careful about how we actually elocute this, so that you can make sure you fully understand.

MAGISTAD: That style of oratory doesn't exactly rouse the masses, but Kirkpatrick says there's a dearth of rhetorical tradition among Chinese leaders. The emperors generally didn't speak to the masses, they wrote edicts.

KIRKPATRICK: So someone like Hu doesn't have the historical tradition that Obama has. Now, Obama can tap into the Gettysburg Address type stuff. He can also tap into the Martin Luther King type stuff. He has those traditions, as it were, at hand, and they are accepted and very much valued.

MAGISTAD: And apparently not just by Americans.

CHINESE TEACHER: If there is anyone out there.

CHINESE STUDENTS: If there is anyone out there.

CHINESE TEACHER: Who still doubts �

MAGISTAD: These students at the New Channel English School in Beijing are learning English by studying President Obama's speeches. One young man called Bing says he finds them very helpful.

BING: Mr. Obama has a very, a master of the English language, and the language is very beautiful. So, I think we can learn a lot from both from the language and from the content.

MAGISTAD: Bing is less than enthusiastic if still respectful of Chinese leaders' speaking style including all those pauses.

BING: They have to pause a little bit and think a bit more, and this may earn them some more time to think about the content. And this will establish their image and take a bit of time for the photographers to take shots.

MAGISTAD: Of course, President Obama pauses, too, but usually for shorter periods, and for dramatic effect, as in this passage from his acceptance speech, which the students are studying.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

MAGISTAD: The students listen to the cadence, and then take a crack at it themselves.

CHINESE STUDENT: If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible �

MAGISTAD: That's 17-year-old Zhu Fei Hong. He hopes to study in America and likes what Obama's style conveys about the place.

ZHU FEI HONG: Maybe Obama is more passionate than the Chinese leaders. The Chinese leader is very, not very passionate, I think, and not very alive.

MAGISTAD: Would you like to see Chinese leaders be more passionate when they speak?

ZHU FEI HONG: I think China needs more passion for their development, I think.

MAGISTAD: Indeed, China's leaders may feel nudged to spruce up their rhetorical style as the country's global profile grows and young Chinese become more internationalized. It may be awhile before Americans studying Chinese rave about the rhetorical stylings of Chinese leaders, but China moves fast these days. Don't rule it out. For The World, I'm Mary Kay Magistad in Beijing.