- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 18, 2009

BEIJING | The ceremony that served as President Obama’s formal welcome to this city had all the visual grandeur and red-carpeted elegance a television camera crew could desire - a military review, a long walk across the opulent Great Hall of the People, an expansive mural depicting the Great Wall.

And it had one element that made it ideal for the Chinese national broadcast station, CCTV: silence.

In his first official trip to China, Mr. Obama visited the Forbidden City, spoke at length with Chinese leaders about greenhouse gas emissions and nuclear disarmament, and delivered some of the toughest rhetoric a U.S. president has ever uttered on Chinese soil about open government and universal rights.

But among the Chinese people, the popular American president was seen, more than heard.

Before he departed Wednesday, Mr. Obama proved he could do little to unlock the iron-tight grip the Chinese maintained on how his visit would be viewed here.

U.S. Embassy officials said they received numerous reports that broadcasts of the president’s two main public appearances in China were at least partially interrupted. The Chinese altered plans to televise Mr. Obama’s town hall with 500 students in Shanghai, showing the event only on a smaller, local station. U.S. Embassy officials here said a Hong Kong-based station that attempted to beam images of the event into Beijing had its feed cut after Mr. Obama took his second question.

The People’s Daily online briefly summarized Mr. Obama as telling the crowd that the Internet has “enormous power in assisting information dissemination,” but made no mention of his comments on how censorship undermines debate that drives positive change.

And the American president’s one chance to engage publicly with Chinese President Hu Jintao, in a planned news conference, was abruptly scaled back so that neither man could take questions from reporters.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs acknowledged Tuesday that the president did not reach as many people as he would have liked, but said it was unrealistic to believe the Chinese state-run media would suddenly change after a generation of censorship and tight image control.

“I did not expect, and I can speak authoritatively for the president on this, that we thought the waters would part and everything would change over the course of our almost 2 1/2-day trip to China,” Mr. Gibbs said. “We understand there’s a lot of work to do and that we’ll continue to work hard at making more progress.”

For the first time since he arrived in China, Mr. Obama publicly raised the issue of the Chinese crackdown in Tibet.

“I spoke to President Hu about America’s bedrock beliefs that all men and women possess certain fundamental human rights,” Mr. Obama said during the carefully orchestrated event with Chinas president in an ornate marble chamber in the Hall of the People.

“We did note that while we recognize that Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China, the United States supports the early resumption of dialogue between the Chinese government and representatives of the Dalai Lama to resolve any concerns and differences that the two sides may have,” he said.

Despite groundbreaking public remarks from Mr. Obama about Tibet and Internet censorship, the Chinese-controlled media appeared to give the American president far less leeway than his predecessors when it came to reaching the Chinese people.

During President George W. Bush’s visit in 2002, his words were broadcast live and distributed widely to the Chinese public.

When President Bill Clinton came here in 1998, Chinese citizens were floored to watch the American president engage then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin during a live, televised news conference that turned into an unscripted public debate about sensitive political subjects, such as human rights and the Tiananmen massacre. The American president was also afforded a 20-minute interview on national Chinese television in which he was able to make a strong impression.

At the time, a Chinese math student, Xiao Yan, told the New York Times he found the broadcasts “very exciting, … something we rarely see, since most of the news avoids controversial topics, so this is a sign of progress. There’s an old saying, ‘When you hear from many different sides only then you understand.’ ”

Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Mr. Clinton was even unhindered from mentioning the 1989 Tiananmen events, during a speech at Beijing University that was broadcast live on national television.

“During past visits, the Chinese seemed to be more comfortable than they are today receiving criticism,” Ms. Glaser said. “I think what we’ve seen on this visit is a reflection of the current moment, when the Chinese leadership feels very paranoid about stability at home.”

But this was not the first time the Chinese have exhibited a reluctance to give Mr. Obama broad exposure here. Chinese who stayed up into the early hours to watch his inauguration in January looked on as state-run CCTV abruptly cut away from its coverage of Mr. Obama’s address when he spoke of how “earlier generations faced down fascism and communism.”

The censors proceeded to mute the Chinese interpreter, abandon the shot of the U.S. Capitol and seek refuge with a flustered studio anchor.

U.S. Embassy officials here said it is too early to determine how many people in China will ultimately have heard Mr. Obama reflect on such sensitive topics as Tibet and Internet censorship during this stretch of his eight-day, four-country Asian tour. Thomas F. Skipper, the minister counselor for public affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, told The Washington Times that his staff was still going through tapes.

But several top aides to the president said they believe the president’s message will eventually reach large numbers of people here, in part through videos of his appearances on Internet sites such as whitehouse.gov.

And if the Chinese people see Mr. Obama’s appearance, administration officials said, they will have the chance to hear him address censorship, something that is rarely discussed publicly in China.

“I should tell you, 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,” Mr. Obama told the gathered students Monday.

“I think people naturally are - when they’re in positions of power, sometimes think, ‘Oh, how could that person say that about me, or that’s irresponsible,’ ” he said. “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.”

Mr. Obama’s foreign policy team said that the day of talks with Mr. Hu represented a significant advance for American relations with China on several key fronts.

On climate change, for instance, the two leaders agreed in principle that each country would take significant mitigation actions, according to Michael Froman, a senior adviser to the president on the issue. They agreed that even as the Copenhagen negotiations appear well short of a final legal agreement, they would seek an accord that addresses mitigation commitments by both developed and developing countries, focuses on countries adapting to the effects of climate change, and provides scaled-up financing and technological support.

Mr. Hu listed a range of other areas where he expects his government to work more closely with the U.S., including on counterterrorism, law enforcement, science, technology, civil aviation, space exploration, high-speed railway infrastructure, agriculture, health and other fields.

“We also agreed to work together to continue to promote even greater progress in the growth of military-to-military ties,” Mr. Hu said, through a translator.

Mr. Hu did not entirely ignore the question of human rights. Speaking to the gathered reporters - who were told they would not be permitted to ask questions - Mr. Hu said he and Mr. Obama “reaffirmed the fundamental principle of respecting each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

“We will continue to act in the spirit of equality, mutual respect and noninterference in each other’s internal affairs, and engage in dialogue and exchanges on such issues as human rights and religion in order to enhance understanding, reduce differences and broaden common ground,” he said.

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