Revisiting Mike Wallace’s Interview With Jiang Zemin: “Explaining Power Dilutes It” [UPDATE]

Isaac Stone Fish over at Foreign Policy has a fitting tribute to Mike Wallace, journalist, with a post titled “Is Mike Wallace the reason Chinese leaders don’t give interviews?” To Wallace, who passed away on Saturday — and to any journalist, really — I can’t think of a better compliment.

Wallace’s genius was the ability to unblinkingly chastise power. Even during the aired pleasantries, Wallace looks unimpressed with Jiang [Zemin]. During minute 2 of the hour-long interview, aired days before Jiang’s 2000 U.S. visit, Wallace tells Jiang “shorter answers, please. More concise” and a touch of panic breaks through Jiang’s placid smile.

The video embedded above is the unedited Wallace-Jiang interview (including the edited portion, the total length is an hour and 20 minutes). (My attempt to upload parts of this to Chinese Internet — unsurprisingly — failed.) You’ll see that Jiang begins with pleasantries, reminding Wallace that they’ve spoken before and were (are) on friendly terms. Wallace’s arms are crossed, unamused, and then his questions start. “You know, Mr. President, you took over a little bit more than 10 years ago, right? Widely perceived to be a transitional figure. You were not going to be No. 1. You were going to spend a few years running the country…” — Jiang begins to squirm — “…and then somebody more decisive and somebody stronger and so forth was going to take over…”

Check out Fish’s FP article, with the right-on phrase, “explaining power dilutes it.”

UPDATE, 3:10 pm: Via Adam Minter, this South China Morning Post story is a worthy follow-up to the above, as it speaks to both Wallace’s journalistic bona fides and also Jiang’s mettle. And it all serves to make Hu Jintao look all the weaker for refusing to sit down with foreign reporters.

It has been widely reported that Jiang’s entourage, including the then foreign minister, Tang Jiaxuan, was outraged by Wallace’s challenge and wanted to interrupt the interview. But Jiang held his own.

Jiang later spoke highly of Wallace. In October 2000, Jiang was quoted accusing Hong Kong journalists of asking “simplistic and naive ” questions.

“As you all know, Wallace in the US is a lot better than you and we still talk delightfully,” he said, holding up his thumb in praise of Wallace.

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