Interview: Rui Chenggang on the Obama Press Conference in Seoul

By Wang Juan
Published: 2010-11-30

Business Review, page 55,
Issue 495, November 22, 2010
Translated by Guo Wei
Original article:

The U.S Presdent held a press conference at the conclusion of the G20 Summit in Seoul earlier this month. After responding to a series of questions, the president sought a question from any of the Korean journalists in attendance. You can watch what happened next here or read about it here.

Below, EO journalist Wang Juan talks to the CCTV journalist Rui Chenggang about his exchange with President Obama.

Economic Observer (EO): In the video that appeared on Phoenix TV, Obama said "your English is better than my Mandarin." It all seemed a bit awkward at that time. What was the atmosphere like at the time?

Rui Chenggang (Rui):
It was not awkward. On the contrary, it was the most relaxed moment of the whole afternoon. The press conference was intense, and American media asked a lot of sharp questions, such as "Do you feel like your popularity is waning?" and "Certain heads of state are not as responsive to you as they were before." It was Obama's most relaxed moment when he was answering my question. Everyone was relieved.

EO: You said that Korean reporters did not ask questions because of an Asian tendency toward shyness. Do you come across this type of "shyness" often in international settings?

Rui: The shyness is a part of Eastern Culture; the other reason is the press conference was conducted in English, the president was a western president, and it was home court advantage to the west. Many journalists were really there for the show. I've attended four of Obama's G20 press conferences, and a lot of journalists were there to stargaze, not to ask serious questions. Especially in London, all the journalists applauded when Obama came along; it was very unprofessional. In Korea, a journalist was shooting the video on his own cell phone- that wasn't his job; they had a professional camera man. This is how fans behave, so it's no surprise that they did not ask any questions.
EO: As an Asian, how do you avoid this type of "shyness"? Your experiences? Your personality? Or being a media figure?

Rui: The biggest reason is that I hope my work can live up to China's place on the international stage. China has a bigger say in the international community, the behavior of journalists should reflect that. If I did not step up, someone else would have.

EO: Were there other Chinese reporters present? Did they raise their hands? Do you think your willingness to "step up" has anything to do with your personality?

Rui: Yes there were, and they did not raise their hands. But in London, a number of Chinese reporters raised their hands, not just me. You are always uncomfortable when it's your first time. I've gotten used to it. Who doesn't want to make the easy choice and just sit in the corner and watch? But I have the drive to force myself to do my duty as a good journalist, so I "step up."

EO: You have been reflecting upon the incident in Chinese, but you haven't responded to the other peoples of Asia who were covered by your claim to "represent all of Asia."

Rui: I googled this incident in English, but only a few related news pieces popped up, I guess that shows that not many foreigners are interested in the matter. The press conference was transmitted live all over the world, but I did not hear any complaints from South Korea, Japan or other Asian countries. They did not express any complaints directed toward me, and it wasn't even news. What's worth discussing is why small groups in China care. No matter who it involves and no matter where, there's always a public reaction. This has nothing to do with me. Public "sensitivity" is the defining characteristic of contemporary Chinese society. Is it a cultural thing or a language thing? I'll leave that up to the scholars to work out.
EO: This isn't the first time you've run into controversy concerning claims about "representation." Is this just a verbal habit? Will you deliberately avoid the term from now on?

Rui: I have conducted many interviews, not just the one or two pieces you mentioned, and it's obvious that the use of this term isn't one of my verbal habits. I will not avoid it deliberately. When a person goes abroad, he can come to represent the image of an entire country. If that man did something rude, people will say "this Chinese person is rude." It's the same with Americans.

EO: Is there anything about the interview you would have done differently?

Rui: No.

EO: If everything went so well, how did "the misunderstanding" occur?

Rui: Let me explain it this way. Former American official General Haig used to have disagreements with Dr. Kissinger. Kissinger often said "Alexander, if you know what I know, you see what I see, you experience what I experience, you grasp all the information that I have, you would agree with me." This is what I mean. Misunderstandings are generated by gaps in information.
EO: You have always hoped to serve as some kind of bridge between China and the West, clearing up misconceptions that western countries have about China. Have you considered that even in China, in the same culture, there are also different opinions, arrived at from different ways of thinking?

This is a good question. But the two cases are different. Western misconceptions about China often have terrible consequences, which would damage national interests and may push other countries toward decisions that put us at a disadvantage. This is where I come in, I work to relieve the situation. By contrast, if people in China are saying controversial things about me, it's no big deal.

EO: Do you always hope to leave a fine impression when appearing in front of audiences?

Rui: Actually, when I'm hosting the evening Economic News Broadcast, I'm usually taking about the price of garlic, whether the market for persimmons looks good, fluctuating property price ... reporting economic news that affect the lives of average people is the most important part of my job, but audiences often focus on the interviews that I have with big names. I can't do anything about that.
EO: There are no details about your personal life on your micro blog. But on your friends list, we find the likes of Fukuda Yasuo and Kevin Rudd ... this makes us want to ask how do you go about becoming friends with politicians.

Rui: Kevin Rudd is my friend. Once a man becomes a politician, it is difficult to make friends with him. But if you were friends before he became a politician, it's much easier. Take Rudd for example. When we met, he was a senator but after that it became more difficult for us to stay in touch. Making friends with big names is a "privilege" that comes with the job, but I feel that as people, what we have in common outweighs our differences.


This interview was edited by Ruoji Tang and Paul Pennay

Links and Sources
 Clip of press conference