SHANGHAI, CHINA, Nov. 16, 2009 — -- 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.
But Obama did not shy away from those disagreements -- including the issue of human rights, a subject that has weighed on the U.S.-China relationship in recent years.
"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 More Freely Information Flows, the Stronger the Society Becomes'
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.
Seemingly making an attempt at humor that didn't necessarily translate well into Mandarin, Obama said that "I should be honest, as president of the United States, there are times where I wish information didn't flow so freely because then I wouldn't have to listen to people criticizing me all the time."
He then turned to a more serious point, saying, "I think people naturally,...when they're in positions of power sometimes think, 'Oh, how could that person say that about me,' or 'That's irresponsible.'... But the truth is that because in the United States information is free, and I have a lot of critics in the United States who can say all kinds of things about me, I actually think that that makes our democracy stronger and it makes me a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don't want to hear. It forces me to examine what I'm doing on a day-to-day basis to see, am I really doing the very best that I could be doing for the people of the United States."
The president was asked twice to explain why he won the Noble Peace Prize, which he said he received with "great humility." Obama told the students he believes the award was not about him personally, but the change he believes he represents.
Obama Invites Students to the U.S.
"In some ways I think they gave me the prize, but I was more the symbol of the shift in our approach to world affairs that we are trying to promote," the president said.
Today Obama announced that the United States is expanding the number of American students studying in China to 100,000. He also extended an invitation to Chinese students to do the same.
"I hope that many of you have the opportunity to come and travel and visit the United States. You will be welcome," he said. "I think you will find that the American people feel very warmly to the people of China."
White House officials were clearly disappointed that the president's town hall did not air live on Chinese state television.
One aide said the fact that it did not puts even more of a point on the president's statements on freedom of expression and human rights.
Aides say they are confident the Chinese people will be able to hear the president's message and were happy to have been able to hold the event at all, noting it would not have happened without the help of the Chinese government.
Many of the students in the audience were complimentary of Obama's speech and town hall today -- calling him a "kind," "charming," "energetic," and "passionate," man.
Kind words coupled with many flattering questions, perhaps might just be a trait of the Chinese, suggested one university student, and not necessarily because they agree with everything the American president says.
"I think you have to understand this phenomenon from the cultural aspects because Chinese people are generally speaking very friendly," a local university student who attended the speech today said. "And well they are very humble so basically you know they want to pay their compliments to the president."
Some students expressed different feelings about Obama's remark that more communication and technology bring more openness and strength to a country.
"I agree with that but like Obama said every country has different, different trend and different. That's different. So I think China maybe has its own way to this free Internet," one young university man said.
Obama's Speech Unprecedented
Another seemed uncomfortable when asked if he agreed that China should be more open about social network sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
"Ah, that's ah – well we have to, you know, deal with it from different positions. Because we -- it's -- every government has its own reasons to do."
A student from East China University in Shanghai said the president's speech was unprecedented in their country.
"We can talk freely with him. This is a good chance for Chinese student because maybe in China we not have many chance to speak with high level government leader."
The president was introduced by Hunstman, the U.S. ambassador to China and a former Mormon missionary to Taiwan. Huntsman smoothly addressed the students in English and Chinese.
Obama whispered briefly with Huntsman before he stepped to the podium.
"Nong Hao," the president said -- greeting the students with a local Shanghai slant term for "hello."
"I don't know what he said, but I hope it was good," Obama said of Huntsman's introduction. "I am very sorry that my Chinese is not as good as your English, but I am looking forward to this chance to have a dialogue."