When Pres. Barack Obama held a town hall-like event in Shanghai, few thought his remarks would go out unfiltered on Chinese media. And they (we) were right.
The event was not carried live — unlike Pres. Clinton’s event in 1998. And when the question of Internet freedom came up, the response was pulled from any web site that carried it. (NetEase had the answer up for 27 minutes.)
Question to Obama via the U.S. embassy web site and read by U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman:
“In a country with 350 million Internet users and 60 million bloggers, do you know of the firewall? And second, ‘Should we be able to use Twitter freely?'”
Some background: Twitter is blocked in China as is Facebook. The “Great Firewall of China” is used, so Beijing says, “to protect social stability.” Bottom line really is that as usual the Chinese government wants to control all aspects of communication.
Obama went straight to the social stability aspect in his response (from ABC News):
“I have never used Twitter,” the president said. “My thumbs are too clumsy to type in things on the phone. But I am a big believer in technology and I’m a big believer in openness when it comes to the flow of information. 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.”
The president said he’s “always been a strong supporter of open Internet use. I’m a big supporter of non-censorship. This is part of the tradition of the United States that I discussed before, and I recognize that different countries have different traditions. I can tell you that in the United States, the fact that we have…unrestricted Internet access is a source of strength, and I think should be encouraged.”
Of course, it is that “hold their own governments accountable” part that Beijing is so afraid of.
It would have been nice if the president had stepped up even more in speaking out for free press in general, but at least he criticized the massive censorship that takes place in China when Western news sites and social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook are blocked.
- Obama visit arouses mistrust in China’s Internet populace – Reuters
- Barack Obama criticises internet censorship at meeting in China – The Guardian
- President Obama Tells Chinese Students Unrestricted Internet Access Makes the U.S. Stronger, Free Speech Makes Him a Better Leader – (US) ABC News
- President Obama, Can We Twitter? – CBS News
- Obama in China criticises internet censorship – Times of London
- Obama visit arouses mistrust in China’s Internet populace – Washington Post (Which is the same as the Reuters’ story)
- Loosen internet control, Obama urges China – CBC
Oh, and the Chinese media, especially the news they want the rest of the world to see? Nothing about Internet freedom:
Surfing Chinese youth bravely explore world waves – Xinhua
But the Peoples’ Daily did do a bloggers transcript of the event:Obama’s Dialogue with Chinese Youth (Transcription).
Sometimes U.S. humor doesn’t translate well. In making a joke that about too many leaks from government sources, Obama said:
“I should be honest, there are times when I wish information didn’t flow so freely, then I wouldn’t have to listen to people criticise me all the time. People naturally when in positions of power think ‘How could that person say that of me? That’s irresponsible’.”
What the Chinese blogger for People’s Daily heard:
As President he wishes he could restrict information so he wouldn’t hear being criticized so much.
And then added: (yay us?)
The blogger failed to see the difference.