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

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.

Guo Ruijie, a senior majoring in English at Tongji University, said Obama "doesn't have big president airs. When he gave his speech on the stage, he was walking around like going for a walk with his caged birds. He gave me the impression that he is very amiable and easy to approach and close to people, and he cares a lot about the next generation."

While Obama was speaking inside, a small group of fans waited outside hoping for a glimpse of the president or his motorcade. They included Chinese students and some young Americans studying in China.

"I really agree with Obama's slogan, 'change' " said Jiang Yimeng, 19-year-old high school graduate. "I think the U.S. is more open than China. I'm now applying to universities in the United States. I really want to go to the George Washington University, which is just opposite the White House."

She added, "I also heard that the White House is open to public, and normal people can actually see president and his family close up. Obama is so charming and always smiling."

Shi Tingchong, also 19 and a high school graduate, spent a year as an exchange student in Ohio.

"I'm here because I worship him," she said. "I think he is someone who can really listen to us. Chinese government leaders just read from what's written down on documents."

She added, "He is a great black president. After I read his book, 'Dreams From My Father,' I think his road to success was really not easy, and he couldn't achieve success without his excellent eloquence."

Washington Post researchers Liu Liu in Shanghai and Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company