By Anne E. Kornblut and Andrew Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 16, 2009
SHANGHAI -- President Obama met a carefully screened audience of Chinese students in a town hall-style meeting on Monday, telling them that relations between the United States and China have often faced "tumultuous winds," but that the two countries have developed "deep and even dramatic ties."
"Surely we have known setbacks and challenges over the last 30 years," Obama said during his first public appearance in China during his eight-day trip to Asia. But, he added, "the notion that we must be adversaries is not predestined."
The event was billed as an opportunity for Obama to reach beyond Chinese officialdom. But virtually every aspect of the meeting was scripted.
Obama's audience, selected and coached by Chinese officials, was bused to the venue from eight universities. Questioned briefly as they were hustled into the hall, the students said they were mostly members of the ruling Communist Party.
The meeting, attended by nearly 500 students, was held at the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum, a hyper-modern complex located in Pudong, a new development zone far from the city center. Police sealed off the museum and blocked off nearby streets. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also met students during their own trips to China but did so on university campuses.
Obama, in opening remarks, described the United States as a nation that had endured painful chapters in its history because of its core ideals, including a belief that government should reflect the will of the people. He said the United States did not seek to impose "any system of government on any other nation," but said "America will always speak out for its core principles around the world."
"We made progress because of our belief in those core principles that have served as our compass in the darkest of storms," Obama said.
He did not begin taking questions before this edition went to press.
Before the meeting, Liu Yupang, a 21-year-old mechanical engineering student from Shanghai's Jiaotong University, said he and fellow students had been given an afternoon of "training." He said they could ask Obama what they wanted but had been ordered to take a "friendly attitude." Liu is a party member.
Chinese officials held newspaper reporters traveling with the White House in a separate "viewing room" from which Obama and the students could barely be seen.
A sign outside the Museum informed visitors that the premises were closed from Nov. 14 to 16 for "maintenance needs." U.S. and Chinese officials haggled for weeks over the format of the Shanghai meeting, with the United States asking that the meeting be as freewheeling as possible, and the Chinese demanding the opposite.
Live video of the event was streamed on the official White House Web site to reach as many members of the Chinese public as possible by circumventing the Chinese government's strict control of information.
The Shanghai event was seen by aides as one way for Obama to try to push China toward greater openness. But the Chinese government appeared to exert intense pressure on the town hall organizers, denying access to some potential guests and forcing others to go through pre-event training. A Beijing blogger, Rao Jin, said that "the Chinese government refused the U.S. Embassy's request" to allow him to attend.
Xu Lyiang, a student at Tongji University, said he had wanted to go but had been told that the quota of students had been fulfilled. But he heard from a teacher who was helping select attendees that they were required to attend a "lecture and a meeting" ahead of time.
Also Friday, Beijing police arrested Zhao Lianhai, an activist who had become a spokesman for parents protesting over contaminated baby formula, his wife said. It was an example of the sort of human rights restrictions that advocates say occur all too often.
Zhao's wife, Li Xuemei, said police from Beijing's public security bureau arrived at the house about 11 p.m. Friday and arrested her husband, also confiscating two computers, a digital camera, T-shirts and some fliers. She said she was later told that he had been "officially detained." Bloggers and Internet "netizens" began petitioning online for Zhao's release.
Zhao's 3-year-old son was one of tens of thousands of infants who developed kidney stones last year as a result of drinking formula contaminated with melamine, in one of a series of food safety scandals in China. As many as 300,000 children were infected by the formula. Officially, at least half a dozen infants died, but activists say they think there were possibly more.
Beijing has always been wary of American presidents' desire to reach out beyond the standard rituals of government-to-government meetings. The Chinese government has been particularly reluctant to give them unfiltered access to television since 1998, when, during a joint news conference that was broadcast live, Clinton sharply criticized the bloody 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square. White House officials said they were not certain how much, if any, of Obama's appearance would be broadcast on television, and had State Department aides monitoring to find out.
Obama, traveling through China for the first time, finds himself under the microscope on whether he intends to take up the issue of human rights with Beijing more directly than he has so far.
Human rights activists have been alarmed by his delicate approach to date. Last month, he became the first president in nearly two decades not to meet with the Dalai Lama during a visit to Washington by the exiled Tibetan leader. Eight months earlier, Hillary Rodham Clinton soft-pedaled on human rights during her first trip to Beijing as secretary of state, saying that the issue could not be allowed to "interfere" with cooperation on the economy and climate change -- a dramatic shift from her landmark speech there in 1995, as first lady, in which she declared that "women's rights are human rights."
When Obama meets with Chinese President and Communist Party boss Hu Jintao in Beijing on Monday night and Tuesday morning, he will address "issues of freedom of expression, access to information, freedom of religion, rule of law and certainly Tibet," said Jeffrey Bader, Obama's National Security Council director for East Asian affairs.
But he was relatively mute on those subjects ahead of the visit. In Japan on Saturday, in the most significant address of his Asia trip, Obama did not mention Tibet or Xinjiang, two minority regions of China that have been racked by particularly serious protests and severe crackdowns over the past two years.
Still, Obama did call for the release of Burmese dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent most of the past 20 years in jail or under house arrest. He repeated the demand Sunday in front of the Burmese prime minister at an economic summit in Singapore. He made the appeal just hours before leaving Singapore for China, which has long had close diplomatic, business and military ties with the Burmese junta.
Obama has said he will meet with the Dalai Lama after his trip to China. He had hoped that delaying the meeting would generate goodwill, allow the two countries to focus on economic issues and perhaps encourage Beijing to move ahead with its long-stalled negotiations with the exiled spiritual leader's representatives.
That approach, however, appears to have emboldened China, encouraging it to ask other countries to refuse to meet the Tibetan leader, said Michael Green, a Bush administration Asia adviser who is at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Correspondent Keith B. Richburg and researchers Zhang Jie and Wang Juan in Beijing contributed to this report.