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A summit in translation: The statements behind Hu and Obama's polished political prose

The side-by-side speeches leaders deliver on state visits are elaborate performances intended for many audiences; they're speaking to each other, but also to their own citizens and political bases, to the international community and to the diplomats and officials behind the curtain of international relations. Each word is painstakingly chosen, and seeming platitudes can hide pointed policy statements with huge impact. The Globe and Mail asked some political interpreters to sort out the subtext behind the polished prose.

The experts:

Mel Cappe is president and CEO of the Institute for Research on Public Policy, and served as Canada's high commissioner to the United Kingdom.

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Clayton Dube is the associate director of the US-China Institute at the University of Southern California.

Jonathan Rose is an associate professor of political studies at Queen's University who focuses on political communication.

Janice Stein is the director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

The quote: "China is a developing country with a huge population and also a developing country in a crucial stage of reform. … A lot still needs to be done in China on human rights." - Hu Jintao, responding to a journalist's question at a press conference

Translation: One is hardly needed - this is an unusually candid comment.

Stein: "This is a stark and startling admission for a Chinese leader to make in the United States. [But]he leavens that comment with the explanation that China is a developing country, still struggling to deal with large issues of poverty and job creation."

The quote: "History shows that societies are more harmonious, nations are more successful, and the world is more just when the rights and responsibilities of all nations and all people are upheld, including the universal rights of every human being." - Barack Obama

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Translation: I know you've been trying to behave when it comes to human rights, but frankly, you still have a long way to go. But we are hopeful.

Dube: "This is indirect. This is not saying, 'You are in fact guilty of violating the universal rights of every human being, and let's begin the list with Liu Xiaobo.' He said that people benefit. There's very strategic use of language here. He has deliberately chosen the word 'harmonious' because the Chinese themselves have been using this term to describe a national priority - to create a more harmonious society."

The quote: "In an interconnected world, in a global economy, nations - including our own - will be more prosperous and more secure when we work together." - Barack Obama

Translation: While other nations might care about what we are doing, when it gets right down to it, this is about G2 and not The Rest of the World.

Cappe: "We've seen the balance of power shift from U.S.-Russia, to a unipolar world, shifting now to a bipolar world, and the poles are different. In that sense, Hu wants to be that second pole, and thinks he is, and I think Obama is implicitly recognizing it."

The quote: "At this point in time, let me extend, on behalf of the 1.3 billion Chinese people, sincere greetings and best wishes to the people of the United States." - Hu Jintao

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Translation: Never forget that there is strength in numbers, and the numbers are on our side.

Rose: "When two leaders like this are speaking, they both are assuming the position of being the larger, more dominant partner. And I think that in the eyes of Americans who might be listening, this was a reminder that although China may not be as economically developed as the U.S., they're a much larger country."

The quote: "Mr. President, we can learn from our people. Chinese and American students and educators, business people, tourists, researchers and scientists, including Chinese Americans who are here today - they work together and make progress together every single day." - Barack Obama

Translation: Sure, we're speaking to each other, but mostly we're speaking to all of you out there.

Rose: "This is an example of transference, where the interests of the speaker are transferred to the audience. By making the goals of Hu and Obama the same as the audience's, it helps create a bond between those listening and those speaking. They have the same goals as we do. These speeches are meant to remind the audience that these are not antagonists, but friends."

The quote: "China and the United States should step up communication and co-ordination in international affairs, work together to counter the global challenges, and make a greater contribution to world peace and development." - Hu Jintao

Translation: I'm worried about North Korea, too. Help me deal with Kim Jong Il.

Cappe: "I don't think that China actually feels comfortable having as its agent North Korea. I think what he's saying is, 'I'm prepared to play to lower the temperature, but I'm going to need your help and I'm going to need you being diplomatic in the way we do it, because I'm not prepared to take Kim Jong Il out and shoot him."

With reports from The Associated Press

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About the Author
Banking Reporter

James Bradshaw is banking reporter for the Report on Business. He covered media from 2014 to 2016, and higher education from 2010 to 2014. Prior to that, he worked as a cultural reporter for Globe Arts, and has written for both the Toronto section and the editorial page. More

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