Obama backs non-censorship; Beijing, apparently, does not

President Obama wrapped up his tour of Asian countries, which included stops in Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea. He addressed security and environmental policy, the economy and U.S.-Asia relations.
By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 16, 2009; 1:20 PM

BEIJING -- President Obama, taking questions Monday from government-selected students at a town hall-style meeting in Shanghai, called himself "a big supporter of non-censorship." But the Beijing government, apparently, is not, and most Chinese never got to hear or read what Obama said.

His talk to the students was never mentioned on China's main official 7 p.m. news broadcast. The session was broadcast live only on a single small Shanghai television station -- and that station's Web site switched to a children's program instead of live-streaming the president's event. And most news Web sites deleted stories about Obama taking a question on Internet freedom.

The 7 p.m. news broadcast of CCTV is the most influential in China, reflecting the official government line and serving as the main source of television news for most people outside the major cities. But Obama's arrival in Shanghai was not even the lead story -- it was seventh in a line of stories that began with one on President Hu Jintao returning from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Singapore.

When CCTV did mention Obama's visit, well into the broadcast, it was in a story of less than a minute that just noted his airport arrival and his meeting with the mayor of Shanghai. There was not a word about the forum with students, which the White House had billed as the marquee event of Obama's first trip to China.

Obama was asked what he thought about the Chinese government blocking several Internet international sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, as well as critical news sites. "I've always been a strong supporter of open Internet use," Obama said.

The question, and Obama's answer, appeared almost immediately as a top news story on the official New China News Agency, known here as Xinhua, as well on as several popular Chinese Web sites.

But about an hour later, the stories about Obama embracing Internet freedom disappeared.

The sina.com site, for example, initially ran the story under the headline: "Obama: The Internet is a tool for becoming stronger and citizens can participate." An hour later, anyone going to that link got the message, "Cannot find the page."

The news was also deleted from Xinhua, which initially posted a story about Obama's answer on Internet censorship but later carried a notice that said, "Sorry! The news you are checking has been deleted or expired."

Even the students who posed questions to Obama were pre-selected, and most appeared to be members of the Chinese Communist Party Youth League. Afterward, some of them, when contacted by a reporter, criticized Obama's statements about Internet censorship, even while saying they were generally pleased having seen the U.S. president up close.

"I strongly disagree with what Obama said about the Internet firewall," said Tao Weishuo, a 24-year old postgraduate student from Fudan University. "I think all Chinese people have Internet freedom -- we can speak out freely on the Internet about current social affairs." He said the question to him came from a Web site outside China.

Still, Tao said he was impressed. "I think he is kind and warm," Tao said.

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