Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Obama trip fails to make big hit with papers

While Obama has undoubtedly made headlines around the world, his arrival in China failed to make the impact that might have been expected for the US president's first trip to the region. On Tuesday there was much spoken about his discourse with students who attended his stage-managed town hall meeting in Shanghai. Most western news outlets hinged on Obama's comments over censorship. Asked about Twitter and the so-called Great Firewall of China, Obama declared he was against censorship. He said he had "never used Twitter", despite having a verified @barackobama Twitter feed [evidently it is serviced by his staff], due the the fact he was "clumsy" with his thumbs. But he went on to say he was a "big believer in technology" and a free Internet.
"I'm a big believer in openness when it comes to the flow of information," the American leader said, "I think that the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable. They can begin to think for themselves.That generates new ideas. It encourages creativity."

Whether by coincidence or design, that is interference by Chinese censors, the feed froze on the White House website the moment he had said the word "accountable". It wasn't immediately clear if the live Internet stream had been deliberately scuppered or if it had more to do with a poor connection. Nonetheless, few people became aware of Obama's comments on the matter. The meeting was only broadcast on a local Shanghai television station. Even the promised Xinhua feed did not surface and even staff at Xinhua's Beijing offices resorted to watching it on the White House website.

Little of his speech was discussed in China. Xinhua was fast to publish Obama's stated view that his "administration fully supports a one-China policy" following a seemingly planted question with regards Taiwan. It was sometime later that the full transcript became available. One of the first to publish it to the web was tvnewswatch. The LA Times followed a few hours later though both sites were blocked in China. CBS published the transcript on Tuesday as did the White House website, though for ordinary Chinese there is no easily accessible Chinese language version.

Twitter users, circumventing the firewall with applications not yet blocked, continued the dialogue about Obama's visit. Many have criticised him for not being more forthright about human rights. However many see the reason behind this as not to anger the country which has bought up much of America's debt.

News coverage on state television has been scant though many newspapers carry the Obama visit front page. Some have focused on the president's arrival in Shanghai carrying his own umbrella. In China this would be rare. Officials would never be seen holding an umbrella. Instead aides would protect the VIP from the rain.

Outside of China the visit has been covered, though few carried pictures on the front page. Even many US papers pushed the story to the inside pages. One notable exception being the New York Times. No British papers gave the US president a front page lead and there were only a few European papers which gave Obama any prominence. Italy's La Stampa ran with a small picture on its front page and the Dutch paper Trouw de Verdieping showed the back of Obama's head in front of students with the headline "President Obama visits Chinese students". The Luxembourg La Voix ran with a picture of Obama meeting President Hu Jintao and the headline "Obama without taboo; Internet, human rights, and freedom of expression is the menu on the first day in China".

Chinese papers were of course less bold. The Macau Times merely informed readers of Obama's itinerary alongside a picture of the US president with China's Vice-President Xi Jinping. China Daily led with the headline "There's room for us both: Obama" and the Global Times also quoted him, "China, US not adversaries". Papers and news media is happy to promote images of the two countries working together and of presidential seals of approval when declarations are made about a "one-China policy" and Tibet being a part of China. But mentions of the yuan being undervalued, the proposal of dialogue between China and the Dalai Lama or Internet censorship are ignored almost completely.

The English version of the People's Daily did report some of Obama's comments on the Internet, but avoided any reference to Chinese Internet restrictions. The "Internet has an enormous power in assisting information dissemination, and he [Obama] personally has benefited from Internet.," the People's Daily stated. "President Obama said ... that [the] more freely information flows, [the] stronger a society becomes. He said that unrestricted Internet access will give rise to new and creative ideas, and to some extent hold the government accountable for its deeds." There was no mention of the question nor the answer in the China Daily.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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