Hu's Visit: Bush's Chinese Diplomacy--Lost in Translation

President Hu Jintao can take comfort in one thing: most Chinese didn't see the excruciating reception he got at the White House. Not right away, that is. The state-controlled news media gave viewers at home only carefully chosen glimpses of last week's U.S. trip. Despite the concerted efforts of Beijing's 30,000-odd cybercops, however, the painful details--with streaming video--flashed among the country's Internet users. "To summarize my feelings while watching this live news: I felt like I was raped," wrote one participant in Tianya, a mainland-based Web forum. "But I don't know who did it, nor even where my pain is."

For face-conscious Chinese, the visit was a problem even before it began. Hu's retinue had hoped for a full state dinner. Instead, they had to settle for a luncheon. That snub was intentional, at least. A series of unplanned slights and slurs compounded it. The arrival ceremony on the East Lawn began with the event's American announcer misidentifying Hu's home country as "the Republic of China"--the formal name for Taiwan, the island state that for the past half century has been a major source of dispute between the United States and the People's Republic of China. (Bush's aides said the Chinese translation gave the country's correct name.)

The announcer's gaffe was overshadowed almost immediately when Hu tried to deliver his opening speech, only to be interrupted by a human-rights heckler who had slipped in using temporary press credentials. "President Hu, your days are numbered!" she screamed. She kept on shouting for several minutes until Secret Service guards ushered her away.

In the Oval Office afterward, Hu got a personal apology from his host. "This was unfortunate, and I'm sorry this happened," Bush said. Those words may pose a challenge to official translators in Beijing: the Chinese language offers at least four delicately calibrated ways to say "sorry," and the state-run press will need to consider precisely which shade of U.S. regret will save the most face for Hu. Even though the incident itself was blacked out in China, word of it is spreading quickly from Internet users to the unplugged masses. Some forum participants suggested that the heckler's outburst was part of an American plot--even though she spent the night in jail. One skeptic compared her to "a barking dog seeking favors from its master." But others said Bush owed no apology. "The U.S. can allow protestors to enter the White House!" said one message last week. "This just shows they can safeguard citizens' freedom of speech. Then look at China: filter, select, control what people can get. That's the difference between these two countries."

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