Reporting from Beijing— Vice President Joe Biden’s famously loquacious style has now become the source of some international tension.
At the senior levels, the American and Chinese delegations actually seem to be getting along quite well. But relations between the press and staff traveling with the vice president and Chinese officials guarding access to the leaders are another story entirely.
Biden’s schedule Thursday, his first full day in China, included two bilateral meetings with Chinese Vice President Xi Jingping. American and Chinese press were to be allowed in to hear the opening remarks at the start of the first, expanded meeting.
At least that was the plan.
Xi spoke first, calling Biden’s visit a “major event” in the U.S.-China relationship and expressing his desire to work with America “to promote development of relations between our great nations.”
Then Biden spoke, starting with a reference to his first visit to China in 1979, when he saw “the great wonders” of the nation. He spoke of his admiration for the Chinese people and the “great sweep of history.” And to Xi, he spoke of the importance of developing a close personal relationship, one of “openness and candor,” and stated his belief that foreign policy “is more than just formal visits, it’s establishing relationships and trust.”
“It is my fond hope that our personal relationship will continue to grow,” Biden said to Xi, who is widely expected to be the next Chinese president.
It was right about this time that a near-brawl was breaking out about a hundred feet away from the diplomatic exchanges in the Eastern Hall of the Great Hall of the People.
Only minutes into Biden’s remarks, Chinese officials had begun to direct reporters toward the exits. Most reporters and the vice president’s staff objected, saying it was important to cover the entirety of Biden’s opening statement, as had been the agreement between officials beforehand.
A Chinese press aide said Biden was going on far too long for their liking. But in fact, including the consecutive translation of his comments from English to Chinese, Biden spoke only two or three minutes longer than Xi had.
Soon the stern shooing turned into forceful shoving. As reporters tried to stand their ground, Chinese officials locked arms and pushed forward in a show of overwhelming force. Soon enough Biden did finish, but reporters had difficulty hearing the entire thing because of the fisticuffs.
Hours later, Biden held another meeting with the chair of the National People’s Congress, Wu Bangguo. And again, Chinese officials attempted to force reporters from the room even as Biden was still speaking.
Though there would not be the kind of physical interaction as in the earlier meeting, the vice president’s staff was not pleased with their Chinese counterparts, who they felt were showing disrespect to the office and to the country.
That’s not to say the display was unexpected. In fact, reporters had been warned beforehand about the potentially over-aggressive conduct. But some more veteran members of the American press and staff said it went further than they’d seen in the past.
Friday will provide another test of the press corps’ muscle when Biden is to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao.