Sunday, September 04, 2016

Confrontations Flare as Obama’s Traveling Party Reaches China
New York Times
SEPT. 3, 2016

President Obama arriving in Hangzhou, China, on Saturday. There were arguments at the airport between White House aides and Chinese security officials who tried to keep back reporters. Credit Damir Sagolj/Reuters

HANGZHOU, China — Air Force One had a bumpy landing in Hangzhou on Saturday, but it was nothing compared with what happened after the plane rolled to a stop.

As the reporters who traveled to the Group of 20 summit meeting with President Obama from Hawaii piled out and walked under the wing to record his arrival, we were abruptly met by a line of bright blue tape, held taut by security guards. In six years of covering the White House, I had never seen a foreign host prevent the news media from watching Mr. Obama disembark.

When a White House staff member protested to a Chinese security official that this was not normal protocol, the official shouted, “This is our country.”

In another departure from protocol, there was no rolling staircase for Mr. Obama to descend in view of the television cameras. Instead, he emerged from a door in the belly of the plane that he usually uses only on high-security trips, like those to Afghanistan.

Witnessing the scene, Susan E. Rice, the national security adviser, looked baffled and annoyed. Joined by her deputy, Benjamin J. Rhodes, she ducked under the rope to make her way closer to the president. The two were immediately stopped by the same Chinese official, who angrily challenged them. Asked later what happened, a diplomatic Ms. Rice replied, “They did things that weren’t anticipated.”

There were further surprises. At the West Lake State House, where Mr. Obama met President Xi Jinping, White House aides, protocol officers and Secret Service agents got into a series of shouting matches over how many Americans should be allowed into the building before Mr. Obama’s arrival.

There were fears the confrontation would become physical.

“Calm down, please,” an American official said, according to a pool report. A Chinese foreign ministry official said, “Stop, please,” adding, “There are reporters there.”

To some in Mr. Obama’s delegation, it was reminiscent of the rough treatment he received on his first trip to China, in 2009. Then the Chinese refused to broadcast on state television a town-hall-style meeting; packed the hall with Communist Party loyalists; and censored an interview he gave to a Chinese publication. At the time, many viewed the treatment as a metaphor for a rising power flexing its muscles with a young president from a superpower in decline.

In later visits, the White House has pushed the Chinese for better news media access — with some success. In November 2014, the Chinese agreed to have Mr. Xi take questions at a news conference with Mr. Obama in the Great Hall of the People. When I asked Mr. Xi about the Chinese government’s refusal to renew visas for foreign correspondents, including some from The New York Times, he offered a curt lecture. When one’s car breaks down, he said, “perhaps we need to get off the car and see where the problem lies.”

On this trip, there was little threat of reporters making trouble. China has placed tight restrictions on foreign news media coverage of the entire summit meeting. When Mr. Xi took Mr. Obama on a leisurely stroll after dinner on Saturday, Chinese security cut the number of American journalists allowed to witness it to three from the original six, then ultimately to a single reporter.

“This is our arrangement,” a Chinese official explained to his American counterpart, according to a pool report.

“Your arrangement keeps changing,” the American replied.

Asked on Sunday about the conflict, Mr. Obama noted that it was not the first time there had been tension with the Chinese over security and news media access during his travels here. This time, he said, “the seams are showing a little more than usual.”

But Mr. Obama said it had no bearing on the broader relationship. “I wouldn’t over-crank the significance of it,” he said.

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