In China, Obama presses for rights

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.

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" before they could participate in the question-and-answer session. He said they could ask Obama whatever they pleased -- so long as they took a "friendly attitude." Liu, too, is a party member.

Obama himself struck a mostly conciliatory tone. Continuing a theme of his Asia trip, he said the United States is not threatened by China's rapid growth. "Surely we have known setbacks and challenges over the last 30 years," Obama said. But, he added, "the notion that we must be adversaries is not predestined."

The meeting 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. A sign outside the museum announced the premises closed from Nov. 14 to 16 for "maintenance needs."

Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also met students during their own trips to China but did so on university campuses.

U.S. and Chinese officials haggled for weeks over the format of the Shanghai event, 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 in the hopes of reaching members of the Chinese public who were unable to see it any other way.

The meeting was broadcast live by a local Shanghai television station, but the station's Web site, Shanghai TV Station Online, which usually live streams its television programming, went offline about 20 minutes before the town hall began. It then shifted to a children's program -- preventing computer users across the country from watching the event. National Chinese television stations did not broadcast the meeting. It was supposed to be carried on the Internet via the government-run Xinhua news service, but this didn't happen. Instead, Xinhua posted a written transcript of the remarks -- including, to the surprise of some Chinese, Obama's response to the question about access to the Internet.

Taiwan, an issue that has shadowed and frequently poisoned Sino-U.S. relations, resurfaced as a point of friction when a female student asked Obama whether the United States will continue selling weapons to an island that Beijing considers a renegade province. Obama, in his answer, skirted the matter of arms and instead repeated Washington's longstanding commitment to the so-called "one China policy."

The question reflected one of the Chinese government's most insistent concerns, but the he student who read it said she had received the query via the internet from a Taiwanese businessman. Taiwanese journalists who were present thought this unlikely.

Taiwan has so far been largely absent from the Obama administration's top foreign policy concerns but it could become a serious headache in future because of an arms issue. Taiwan has asked the U.S. to sell it a new generation of F-16 warplanes, a sale that, if approved, would enrage Beijing.

Xu Lyiang, a student at Tongji University, said he had wanted to go to the meeting with Obama 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.

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.

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 had State Department aides monitoring Chinese television to see how much of the meeting was broadcast.

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."

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