- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 18, 2011

BEIJING — When it comes to public appearances, China’s president is no Barack Obama.

Stiff and media-averse, the 67-year-old Hu Jintao will be stepping out of character when he takes questions from reporters after meeting the U.S. president on Wednesday. It’s a White House demand that could create some awkward moments, but Hu is willing to take the risk to improve China’s image abroad.

Hu, who left Beijing on Tuesday for a four-day U.S. visit, also wants to burnish his statesman credentials at home.

China’s rising international status is increasingly a source of legitimacy for the government, and Chinese leaders want to exploit this nationalist sentiment as much as they can,” said Joseph Cheng, who heads the Contemporary China Research Center at the City University of Hong Kong.

The news conference isn’t China’s only bid to influence American public opinion during Hu’s visit. A minute-long video featuring Hong Kong action film star Jackie Chan, Houston Rockets center Yao Ming and other Chinese celebrities began running on six outdoor monitors in New York’s Times Square on Monday and will continue through the middle of next month. Shorter versions will run on television.

While Hu is seen on state TV in China almost daily, his appearances are always set pieces: speeches, attendance at important meetings or carefully scripted interactions with farmers, workers and students. The only high-level news conference of the year is conducted by his premier, the more personable Wen Jiabao.

Hu has taken questions in public before, mostly on overseas visits but also notably at a 2005 news conference with President George W. Bush in Beijing. But he refused to do so when Obama visited in 2009; instead, the two leaders stood stiffly in the Great Hall of the People and read statements to reporters.

On the eve of this trip, Hu responded in writing to questions from The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. In addition to publishing news reports from the interview, both posted the Q&A online. But there were questions Hu refused to answer, for instance, one on jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Though Hu is purported to have been a skilled ballroom dancer in his university days, he seems to lack the affinity for public displays that his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, was famous for. Jiang held his own against then-President Bill Clinton in a news conference broadcast live in 1998, and he once tried to coax Queen Elizabeth II into singing karaoke.

Hu is known for his photographic memory and meticulous preparation and will likely come well-armed with stock answers to deflect questions on sensitive issues such as human rights. While he may not win the hearts of the American public, he may blunt some of the harsher criticisms, Cheng said.

“He wants to try to do a little public relations and get his message across,” he said.

Four questions will be allowed at the news conference, two from Chinese reporters and two from U.S.-based ones.

Tough queries could come on trade and exchange rates, China’s growing military, Taiwan, North Korea and Iran.

One sticky issue is China’s imprisonment of Liu, the dissident Nobel laureate. If asked about Liu, Hu can be expected to reiterate China’s portrayal of him as a dangerous anti-government radical who engaged in subversion by co-authoring a bold call for political reform.

Other touchy subjects include the party’s brutal suppression of the Falun Gong spiritual movement and support for despots in North Korea, Myanmar and Zimbabwe and the sometimes-brutal government in Sudan.

The Chinese government is likely hoping that questions will revolve mainly around the joint statement, which is not expected to touch on human rights, said Renmin University international relations professor Shi Yinhong.

Wednesday’s news conference may be the only spontaneous public moment in the entire visit, which includes a luncheon speech, meetings with congressional leaders, a state dinner and a stop in Chicago on the way home.

The visit begins with a small informal dinner at the White House following his arrival Tuesday night. After a formal welcoming ceremony Wednesday morning, Hu will go into talks, first in a small-group session in the Oval Office and then an expanded meeting in the Cabinet Room and discussions with business leaders.