Barack Obama

Awkward moment marks choreography of Obama, Hu visit

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Despite an awkward moment before the press and a car door that would not open, Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit on Wednesday was mostly glitch-free, marking a successful bit of stagecraft for an important White House guest.

President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao are pictured in front of the White House during an official south lawn arrival ceremony for Hu at the White House in Washington January 19, 2011. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The Chinese president, who was eager to avoid a repeat of the U.S. protocol gaffes he faced during his visit in 2006, got what he wished for: a show of respectful pageantry at a sunny arrival ceremony

But his press conference with U.S. President Barack Obama was marred by translation woes.

Obama gave a long answer to a question about human rights only to find out that it had not been translated simultaneously. He appeared visibly frustrated while waiting for an interpreter to finish, and then Hu -- to the astonishment of U.S. journalists -- did not answer the part of the question that had been directed to him.

When a second U.S. reporter followed up later, Hu said he had not heard the initial question and gave a prepared reply, glancing down at his podium at times to read.

The moment was awkward, and a Chinese journalist later implored the Chinese interpreter to “interpret my two questions correctly and accurately.”

White House spokesman Ben Chang said the human rights question had been translated when it was first asked.

The men’s body language in the press conference reflected awkwardness as well.

Hu fiddled with his glasses. Obama gripped his podium. Both men appeared uncomfortable at times and impatient at others as translation slowed the whole proceeding to more than an hour.

Hu gave Obama a victory by reluctantly agreeing to take questions from reporters at all. The two men shook hands at the end -- pausing to ensure photographers got the shot after officials in the first row stood up, blocking their view.


Getting stagecraft aspects like that right was critical to both U.S. and Chinese officials.

During Hu’s visit to the White House in 2006, the United States announced China’s national anthem as that of the “Republic of China” -- which is the official name for Taiwan -- rather than the “People’s Republic of China.”

A protester who entered the building’s grounds with press credentials also harangued Hu for several awkward minutes during his appearance with then U.S. President George W. Bush.

No such problems came up on Wednesday.

Deborah Mullen, the wife of Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, fainted during the opening ceremony and was escorted indoors by her husband.

And after Hu pulled up to the White House in a limousine, a member of the U.S. honor guard had trouble getting the limo door open, but that issue, too, was quickly resolved.

Hu and President Barack Obama tried to show a sense of ease with each other that did not always come off naturally.

Both men shook hands respectfully, and Obama nodded his head in a bow when Hu first arrived.

During brief remarks before the press in the Oval Office, Obama made small talk about Washington’s weather. He elicited a smile out of the more formal Hu later when he joked about chilly Chicago, his hometown, where the Chinese leader is scheduled to go on Thursday.

If their body language was not especially warm, their surroundings were. The White House -- and streets in the U.S. capital -- were festooned with U.S. and Chinese flags, and the East Room where a joint press conference took place was decorated with flowers.

Even the sun played nice. After a cold spell on Tuesday when Hu’s entourage arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, the clouds parted on Wednesday morning, sending sunlight streaming through as the two presidents inspected a U.S. honor guard and chatted with visitors on the White House lawn.

Additional reporting by Chris Buckley, Editing by Anthony Boadle and Eric Walsh