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China makes sure Putin knows who his friends are

by Adam Minter

Bloomberg

In a Friday morning news media kick-off to the upcoming Winter Olympics, Russian President Vladimir Putin sat in front of a semi-circle of invited reporters in Sochi, Russia. Playing the role of tough, bothersome Anglo-American journalists were ABC’s George Stephanopolous and the BBC’s Andrew Marr, who peppered the Russian leader with questions about corruption and Russia’s notorious laws restricting so-called gay “propaganda.”

Of course, not all of the questions, or questioners, were quite so difficult. The two representatives of the Russian media offered up deferential softballs. When it comes to deference, though, few reporters anywhere — and not just in Sochi — can compete with Shui Junyi, the reporter assigned to cover Putin for China’s state-owned CCTV network.

“You are very popular in China,” Shui said in preface to his first question, as translated by Russia Today, a Russian government-funded media organization. “Before my coming here I said to our Internet users at Central TV that I was going to Russia to interview you. And as soon as I published this message two million users put an ‘I like it’ mark next to it and sent many questions.”

The scale of Shui’s pained obsequiousness in front of Putin has largely been missed in the English-language media, perhaps due to translation issues (for example, the ABC News transcript translates Putin’s answers but not Shui’s questions). That’s a pity because in addition to being pathetic and comical, it’s also a visible reminder of just how important Russia has become to Chinese policymakers, and how few risks the Chinese media will take in covering the country.

Take, for example, Shui’s first question of the Russian president, following several from other reporters about terrorism and the completion of Olympic venues in advance of the games: “What do you think about the Chinese investors coming after the Olympic Games to build hotels?”

In fairness, Shui, as an official media representative of the Chinese government, could hardly be expected to ask a question that might embarrass his Russian partner. Instead, his job was to flatter Putin and to underscore to Chinese and global audiences the limits of U.S. influence and power: the ultimate goal of the Sino-Russian partnership and of Chinese foreign policy in general.

In this, Shui was wildly successful. Take, for example, his third question, which followed several by Marr and Stephanopolous regarding discrimination against the LGBT community in Russia:

“By the way, in 1980 there were also attempts to boycott the Soviet Olympic Games in Moscow for different reasons, and it was the same case at the Beijing Olympic Games. Why do such voices appear when a country is developing, for instance, China is developing, Russia is developing? What do you think, maybe these are manifestations of the ‘cold war’?”

In response, Putin followed the script Shui had laid out for him and answered, “Some old approaches towards Russia still exist from the perspective that there is a need to restrain something.” These approaches, he added cagily, have been “switched on” to restrain China, as well.

That’s an opinion widely shared in China, but rarely expressed or even hinted at by its taciturn and publicly cautious leaders. Many of the country’s populist bloggers and microbloggers, on the other hand, seem to ache for a leader capable of Putin’s bluster. A search of Chinese microblogs will turn up endless numbers of posts praising the Russian leader’s strength and candor, and in the days following his Sochi interview, they only multiplied.

“After watching the interview, I feel that he is such a strong guy,” tweeted a typical Sina Weibo user on Monday. “Six or seven reporters asked him questions and he always took the initiative. Even if the questions were sharp or the perspective was unusual, he could always find a proper answer. Talented politician!”

Needless to say, Putin didn’t fear any “sharp or unusual” questions from Shui Junyi. In part, that may be because Shui was merely serving — or so he claims — as a conduit for Chinese Internet users, whose questions he had brought along. Many of those questions, Shui explained, related to sports, with some wondering “what sport you perform worst yourself?” Then, perhaps realizing that he’d just implied that the Russian leader might be less than perfect, Shui backtracked and — in the process — established a new standard for brown-nosing by a state-employed journalist: “In general, is there anything in the world that you do not know how to do? It seems that you have mastered everything.”

In answering, Putin deferred to the old saying (and humble brag): “The more I know, the more I realize that I know nothing.” Later, he was photographed embracing the delighted “reporter,” prompting the state-owned Qianjing Evening News in Zhejiang province to run the enthusiastic, over-the-fold front-page headline: “Putin Gave CCTV’s Reporter a Big Hug.” The affection was undoubtedly genuine, suggesting that even though Putin may not know as much as he’d like, he certainly knows who his friends are.

Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is the author of “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry.