At the Museum of Science and Technology Monday afternoon, President Obama took questions from a docile audience of more than 400 Chinese university students handpicked by officials of eight different Chinese universities.
The town hall meeting was one of the few unscripted moments on the president's trip. It was supposed to be carried live on Chinese state television but at the last moment, the Chinese government changed its mind and only local stations in Shanghai, and the White House Web site, carried it live.
The president opened with a short speech, saying that America and China's rocky past shouldn't influence the future.
"Our relationship has not been without disagreement and difficulty. But the notion that we must be adversaries is not predestined," he said.
"These freedoms of expression and worship and access to information and political participation, we believe are universal rights," he said. ""They should be available to all people, including ethnic and religious minorities -- whether they are in the United States, China, or any nation. Indeed, it is that respect for universal rights that guides America's openness to other countries; our respect for different cultures; our commitment to international law; and our faith in the future."
The questions were wide-ranging but fairly unchallenging. The students asked the president about his views on the arms sales to Taiwan, his Afghanistan strategy review, and what he hopes to take back with him from this trip to China.
The Obama administration says it solicited questions from the U.S. Embassy Web site so as to ensure some "authentic" queries will be made as well.
The White House said it wanted this forum to be just like those that the president holds in the United States -- no pre-screened questions, a free-flowing dialogue.
So it was fitting when the president was asked about China's Internet censorship policies and whether Chinese should be able to access banned sites like Twitter. Communist censors prevent Chinese citizens from accessing many sites, including social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as news sites.
The Internet question came via the U.S. Embassy Web site and read by U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman.
"In a country with 350 million Internet users and 60 million bloggers, do you know of the firewall?" Huntsman asked. "And second, 'Should we be able to use Twitter freely?'"
Obama first noted that he personally does not use Twitter -- "My thumbs are too clumsy to type in things on the phone" -- but said he is 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," he said. "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 and so I've always been a strong supporter of open Internet use."
Obama called unrestricted Internet access, as in the United States, "a source of strength" and something to be encouraged.