BEIJING — The White House pushed very hard for President Xi Jinping to take questions during his news conference with President Obama at the end of their two days of meetings Wednesday. It did not want a repeat of the stilted, scripted encounter Mr. Obama had with Mr. Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, in 2009 on his first trip to China as president.
What the White House got was Xi Jinping, Unplugged, and that may have been more than it bargained for.
Discarding his standard bromides about the importance of new “major-country” relations between the United States and China, the Chinese leader delivered an old-fashioned lecture. He warned foreign governments not to meddle in the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and foreign journalists to obey the law in China.
Mr. Xi’s thinly concealed anger turned a news conference that should have been a victory lap for two leaders who had just had a productive meeting into a riveting example of why the relationship between the United States and China remains one of the most complicated in the world. The determination to work together belies deep-rooted historical grievances; the happy talk of win-win solutions masks a ferocious rivalry.
The cooperation that Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi announced this week is real. Their joint plan to confront climate change could transform negotiations for a new global climate treaty. Their pledge to warn each other’s militaries about exercises could avert a calamitous clash in the treacherous waters of the South and East China Seas.
And yet Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi found themselves standing before the news media in the Great Hall of the People, wrestling with the same issues that could have divided Nixon and Mao, or Bill Clinton and Jiang Zemin, who jousted with each other in a 1998 news conference, which Mr. Jiang had broadcast live across the country.
Wednesday’s session lacked the personal warmth of that exchange. For all their walks and private dinners, here and at the Sunnylands estate in California last year, Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi have fashioned a relationship that is based, above all, on pragmatism.
Mr. Obama said his meetings with Mr. Xi had given him the chance to debunk the notion that “our pivot to Asia is about containing China.” Mr. Xi said: “It’s natural that we don’t see eye to eye on every issue. But there have always been more common interests between China and the United States than the differences between us.”
There is plenty of evidence that Mr. Xi is right, from concerns about Iran and North Korea to climate change and counterterrorism. But there are countervailing tensions when a rising power flexes its muscles against an established one, and as a Communist empire bristles at the judgments of a powerful democracy. All of this was on vivid display Wednesday.
The tensions surfaced after the two leaders finished their opening statements and Mr. Xi seemed to ignore two questions from a reporter for The New York Times — about whether China feared that the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia represented a threat to China, and whether China would ease its refusal to issue visas to foreign correspondents in light of a broader visa agreement with the United States
White House officials said Mr. Obama had called on The Times reporter to make a point. Several of the newspaper’s China correspondents had their visas applications denied by the government, an issue Mr. Obama raised with Mr. Xi in one of their meetings.
After first taking an unrelated, clearly scripted, question from a state-owned Chinese paper — which drew a quizzical facial expression from Mr. Obama — Mr. Xi circled back, declaring that the visa problems of the news organizations, including The Times, were of their own making.
Mr. Xi insisted that China protected the rights of news media organizations but that they needed to abide by the rules of the country. “When a certain issue is raised as a problem, there must a reason,” he said, evincing no patience for the news media’s concerns about being penalized for unfavorable news coverage of Chinese leaders and their families.
The Chinese leader reached for an unexpected metaphor to describe the predicament of The Times and other foreign news organizations, saying they were suffering the equivalent of car trouble. “When a car breaks down on the road,” he said through an interpreter, “perhaps we need to get off the car and see where the problem lies.”
“The Chinese say, ‘let he who tied the bell on the tiger take it off,’ ” Mr. Xi added, in a somewhat enigmatic phrase that was not immediately translated into English. It is normally interpreted as “the party which has created the problem should be the one to help resolve it.”
Mr. Xi was also dismissive of concerns about a surge of anti-American sentiment in the Chinese news media. One state-owned publication described Mr. Obama’s leadership style as insipid. “I don’t think it’s worth fussing over these different views,” Mr. Xi said.
He bluntly warned the United States and other foreign countries not to get involved in the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, responding to an earlier question to Mr. Obama about recurring rumors in the Chinese press that the United States was stirring up the unrest there. The Occupy Central movement, he said, is illegal.
“Hong Kong affairs are exclusively China’s internal affairs, and foreign countries should not interfere in those affairs in any form or fashion,” Mr. Xi said, reading from notes he had scribbled.
Taken together, the statements offered an unvarnished glimpse at China’s president, two years into his term and after his extraordinary consolidation of power. He is neither a garrulous operator like Mr. Jiang nor a colorless party bureaucrat like Mr. Hu.
“Xi is in the early years of his term, is a very confident and strong leader, and has a quite focused policy agenda,” said David Shambaugh, the director of the China policy program at George Washington University.
Orville Schell, a longtime China observer at the Asia Society in New York, said Mr. Xi’s statements on the foreign news media, the first time he had publicly addressed the issue, were a “dash of cold water.”
“We had thought that China might be slowly evolving away from this retrograde notion of the media,” Mr. Schell added. But he noted that in a speech last month, Mr. Xi had echoed Mao’s view that the news media should function as a “necessary handmaiden of the party.”
Mr. Obama seemed content to play the straight man to Mr. Xi. He insisted that the United States had nothing to do with the Hong Kong protests, though he voiced support for free expression. And his references to human rights were carefully calibrated — reaffirming, for example, that the United States does not recognize a separate Taiwan or Tibet.
As Mr. Obama enters the twilight of his presidency, he appears determined not to let passions get in the way of cooperation with China. Asked about the negative portrayal of him in the Chinese press, he said it came with being a public official, in China or the United States. “I’m a big believer in actions and not words,” he said.
Jane Perlez contributed reporting from Beijing, and Keith Bradsher from Hong Kong.