BEIJING – A funny thing happened on the way from the printers.
Before US President Barack Obama left China on Wednesday, he gave a brief exclusive interview to “Southern Weekend,” one of the bolder voices on the Chinese press scene. But when the paper arrived in subscribers’ mailboxes in Beijing on Thursday, it was missing the front and back pages.
That meant that the interview, printed on the inside front page of copies freely available on newsstands, was missing too.
Since Mr. Obama had made a point earlier in the week – at a meeting with students in Shanghai – of attacking censorship, “it would be ironic if his own interview was being censored,” US Embassy press secretary Susan Stevenson pointed out.
It would also add fuel to the fire of criticism from some quarters that the Chinese authorities had done their best to keep Obama from public view during his three-day trip, wary of his populist appeal and of what he might say. (Obama charisma? China keeps it in tight check.)
Equally mysteriously, the full text of the interview – an anodyne and unobjectionable series of answers about basketball and China’s status as a market economy – was easy to find on the “Southern Weekend” stand-alone website. But it had been excised from the version of the site reachable through the homepage of the paper’s parent company.
We called the Post Office, which handles most periodical subscriptions in China, and were told that the front and back pages had been missing when the papers arrived at their distribution offices in the early hours of Thursday morning. The clerk could not tell us where they might have gone.
They would be delivered later on Thursday afternoon, we were assured.
By nightfall, some subscribers had indeed received the not-so-offending pages. Others hadn’t.
Was this a simple distribution snafu? It is not impossible, though it does seem odd to send out a paper without its front page, even if you are running over deadline, especially when that page carries an exclusive interview with the president of the United States.
But this being China – where government propaganda officials lay a heavy hand on the press – coincidences tend to make people suspicious. And this being China, we likely will never know.