In China, Obama presses for rights

Pressing for freedoms on China's own turf, President Barack Obama said Monday that individual expression is not an American ideal but a universal right that should be available to all.
By Anne E. Kornblut and Andrew Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 16, 2009; 10:28 AM

SHANGHAI -- Meeting with a carefully screened group of students at the marquee event of his Asia trip, President Obama on Monday sought to advance what he called America's "core principles" during his first public appearance in China. But the event itself -- billed as an opportunity for Obama to reach beyond Chinese officialdom -- illustrated the Chinese government's tight grip.

The "freedoms of expression and worship, of access to information and political participation, we believe are universal rights," Obama said at a town hall-style meeting in Shanghai, China's most modern and outward-looking metropolis. Liberty, the president told nearly 500 students bused to a science museum decked with U.S. and Chinese flags, should be "available to all people, including ethnic and religious minorities, whether they are in the United States, China or any other nation."

Virtually every aspect of the event was staged, and it was unclear how many Chinese citizens saw the hour-long exchange, which was not broadcast on national television. One of the most provocative statements Obama made -- about the importance of opening up the Internet -- was posted on Chinese news sites at first, but then was deleted.

Obama's audience, selected and coached beforehand by university officials, came from eight different Shanghai universities. A small, random sampling suggested the vast majority were members of the Communist Party. Many of the eight questions put to the president by students echoed Chinese government talking points.

Nonetheless, administration officials were satisfied with the outcome. "We understood the limitations," said senior White House adviser David M. Axelrod, who is traveling with the president. Regardless of how the questions were generated, Axelrod said, Obama's "answers were his own, and he got a chance to make them to a larger audience on local TV and over the Internet. That made it a very worthwhile event."

Obama later flew to Beijing for a small dinner with Chinese President and Communist Party chief Hu Jintao, whom he will meet again Tuesday morning.

Interviewed after the town-hall event in Shanghai, students generally gave Obama good, if not rave, reviews. And though highly choreographed, the session still left more room for spontaneity than do the meetings China's own leaders hold with ordinary people.

Wang Zhuchen, a student in international relations at Fudan University, said he was surprised -- and also impressed -- to hear the U.S. president talk of his family and children. A Chinese leader, he said, would never discuss anything personal in public.

Wang, a Party member, quickly added that this did not reflect badly on Chinese leaders but merely their "different traditions and culture." Wang said students could ask what they wanted but had been instructed "not to hurt the feelings of our guests."

The one question that pushed normal Chinese boundaries came via the Internet and was read aloud by U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman. "In a country with 350 million Internet users and 60 million bloggers, do you know of the firewall?" the question began, referring to the Chinese government's practice of blocking sites it dislikes, a system of Internet censorship known as the Great Firewall. The question also asked, "Should we be able to use Twitter freely?"

"I've always been a strong supporter of open Internet use. I'm a big supporter of non-censorship," Obama replied. "I recognize that different countries have different traditions. I can tell you that in the United States, the fact that we have free Internet -- or unrestricted Internet access -- is a source of strength, and I think should be encouraged."

Administration officials said the U.S. Embassy in Beijing received more than 1,000 questions for Obama via the Internet. The online questions were chosen at random, with the help of White House Correspondents' Association President Edwin Chen, who selected several numbers that corresponded with questions that were then read aloud.

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