Monday, November 16, 2009

Obama's Phantom Town Hall Meeting

I had trouble sleeping last night, so I turned on the TV and was able to catch some of President Obama's townhall meeting in Shanghai with an audience of Chinese university students. Laying in my bed I was able to do something most Chinese were not, to watch Obama engage in a Q&A session with the students.

The townhall was suppose to be one of the key events of Obama's visit to China, a chance for the country to see the new president in action. The original idea was for the event to be broadcast nationwide on China's state-run TV network. But after two weeks of negotiations, the best the White House could get was coverage on the local Shanghai affiliate station and in Hong Kong, as well as on the Internet. But if the Obama Administration was hoping that the Internet would bring the townhall to the masses, they were badly mistaken - access to streaming video via was said to be "unreliable" in Beijing, while Chinese authorities blocked access through Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. Comments critical about the government posted to Chinese news sites were reported by several Chinese bloggers to have been quickly scrubbed by the authorities.

Perhaps all that censorship was unnecessary - the audience in Shanghai was said to have been carefully pre-screened by the local branch of the Communist party and was only about a quarter of the size Obama had hoped for. And to a degree Obama was self-censoring, soft-pedaling the topic of human rights in China. Obama did take a stand against Internet censorship, but only in reply to a question asked not by a student but by the US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman (from an email, he said, sent to the US Embassy in China). Perhaps the most effective form of censorship really is self-censorship.
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