Monday, November 16, 2009

Obama's stage managed town hall meeting

Obama's town hall meeting was scheduled for 12:45 in the Shanghai Science & Technology Museum, though it started a little later than scheduled. The "Meet the Youth" event aimed to connect with Chinese people at a personal level but from the outset it was clear it was stage managed. Obama took to the stage and spent some time talking about the developing of the US relationship with China, through Ping-Pong diplomacy to recent trade deals. He also talked about fundamental core values that America defends. "Universal rights of freedom should be available to all people.. including those in China" Obama said.

After introductory speeches a student asks about sister-city programs and how Obama might deepen them. Another seemingly staged question followed. The questioner, supposedly from Taiwan, but who seemed opposed to US arms sales to Taiwan asks about the development of "cross-straits" ties. Most Taiwanese support US arms sales and while many seek to uphold a good relationship with China there is at the same time a continued wish in the country to have America as a strong ally. As one writer for the Wall Street Journal's blog puts it, "This must be from the Pro-China Taiwan Businessman's Lobby, headquartered in Bejiing…" Obama said he supported the "one China policy" and hoped that relationship between Taiwan and China continued to improve.

Asked about his Nobel prize, Obama declares, "nobody was more surprised than me for being given the Nobel prize for peace." The president said he was not sure he deserved it and that he had a great responsibility having been given the award. But he said peace was something all people should work together to achieve. "I think all of us have obligations to promote peace in the world," Obama told the students.

Next came a question that had been sent through the US Embassy's website and read out by Ambassador Huntsman. "Do you know of the firewall and should we be able to use Twitter freely?" Obama said that he was too clumsy to use Twitter, this despite the @BarackObama feed which he uses to update his supporters. However he continued to state that censorship of the Internet was not in anybody's interest. "The more freely information flows, the stronger a society becomes, because citizens can hold their governments accountable," Obama told the audience. 

Whether by coincidence or by intervention from Chinese authorities the Internet feed froze at this point. Even CNN's coverage ceased. The BBC had already cut away from coverage and anyone hoping to view the broadcast on Xinhua were out of luck despite a declaration on their website that Xinhuanet were to carry the feed live.

Obama's support of unrestricted Internet access was despite the price paid for openness, such as terrorists being able to organise online. In other words the good far outweighs the bad. Terrorism was also mentioned when asked about Afghanistan and the reasons behind America's continued mission in the country. The US president finished up by stating the US is planning to  expand the number of US students studying in China to 100,000. By the time the connection worked again the hour long town hall meeting was over. There were few hard hitting questions and Obama filled much of the time with long dialogues rather than brief answers. Obama then left the hall shaking as many hands as possible as a piano concerto played in background.

Obama is due to arrive in Beijing on Monday afternoon where he will hold far more private talks with China's president Hu Jintao [tvnewswatch: Full transcript of Obama meeting]

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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