CHINA, GEORGE W. BUSH, JIANG ZEMIN, JOURNALISTS, AMERICAN JOURNALISTS

After George W. Bush gave a speech extolling U.S. values and freedom on Friday, he fielded questions from students at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He was open and engaging as he called on several Chinese students to ask about anything they wanted--from Taiwan to crime, it turned out. Under pressure from the U.S. Embassy, Chinese TV covered his speech and the Q&A session live.

This kind of unscripted moment is rare in China. It's even rarer that it makes the airwaves unedited. President Jiang Zemin doesn't do town hall meetings and he rarely gives a press conference. Only when an American president--and an entourage of more than 100 reporters--come to town, does he feel pressure to take questions like he did this week.

Who would have thought that George W. Bush would be a worldwide trendsetter for freedom of the press? Certainly not the White House press corps. This administration is not known for cozy press relations and recent events, like the Government Accounting Office suit trying to compel the vice president to divulge information about his energy task force, make the Bush administration seem more secretive than ever. The press corps--malcontents by nature--has made a cottage industry of complaining about lack of access. But foreign travel always has a way of making you appreciate what you have. The president thinks the U.S. press gets a good comeuppance when we see how things work--or don't--abroad.

At the press conference with Jiang and Bush, the questions from Chinese reporters were scripted. So much so that Jiang read his answers. Most U.S. reporters refused to call the Jiang-Bush Q&A session a "press conference" because the reporters (just two from each country) were preselected. But the content was not. And this time, something historic happened: after stonewalling through two questions, Jiang finally answered questions from U.S. reporters.

It was ABC's Terry Moran who first tried asking for an explanation of imprisoned Catholic bishops. Jiang blew him off. Some China observers said that the Chinese president might have been confused, assuming that U.S. reporters would only be asking questions of their own president. But then Bob Deans of Cox Newspapers tried again. "With respect sir, we're eager to hear the response to the original question about the arrest of Catholic bishops in your country."

Back in the press center, where many reporters (knowing they would never get called on) watched the press conference, a cheer went up. Bush staffers were also happy to see American journalism at work (and not aimed at their guy). Standing right next to Jiang, Bush did his best not to betray any reaction. Again, Jiang seemed to ignore the question and went straight to a softball by a Beijing correspondent. But he must have been thinking it over, because after he finished his speech he said, "Now, let me comment on the questions posed to me by the American correspondents."

The answer was circuitous, but at least it was an answer. And the next day his response on religious freedom got good play in the newspapers. When asked about the president's reaction to the exchange, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice gave a similarly circuitous reply but concluded: "I thought it was really very interesting that he came back and he did respond to the questions after a period of time." It was a small step toward more freedom of press.

Early Friday morning, President Bush got the bad news that Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was indeed dead. Without being asked, Bush summoned reporters, knowing they would all want to hear his response. He was visibly angry and emotional, condemning the "murder." "All around the world, American journalists and humanitarian aid workers and diplomats and others do important work in places that are sometimes dangerous." It was another reminder this week that covering the White House, no matter how much we complain, is not a hardship post.