Monday, November 16, 2009

Up Close and Personal

It almost looked like it wouldn't happen, but it did.

Up until Friday after two weeks of negotiations, US officials weren't sure if a town-hall meeting with university students in Shanghai would happen.

But probably to the relief of both sides, it did. However, it was not broadcast live on domestic television, like every other US president and world leader's town-hall meetings; instead it was only available on Xinhua's website and the White House website.

Earlier this afternoon US President Barack Obama delivered a speech at the Museum of Science and Technology, reassuring young Chinese people that the United States does not want to contain China.

"We know more is to be gained when great powers cooperate rather than collide," he said.

While he called for more bilateral efforts especially on climate change, he also touched on more pointed issues, saying the US would push for more freedom of expression, including no censorship of the Internet, political participation, respect for ethnic minorities, and empowering women.

He added that up to 100,000 American students would be sent to China to study every year.

But after his speech was the highlight of the event -- hearing questions from the audience.

After all the vetting of the students and their questions, they ended up lobbing softball queries that were naive at best -- how does he keep fit; who pays for Mrs. Obama's dresses; does Obama like kung pao chicken; can he use chopsticks and if he has a Facebook account.

Another asked him how they could follow his path towards winning the Nobel Peace Prize to which Obama replied, "I don't think there's a curriculum of study that leads to the Nobel Peace Prize."

Nevertheless, there were some other questions of a more serious tone, like the US selling arms to Taiwan and cross-straits relations.

CNN's senior Washington correspondent Ed Henry reported that a young woman he spoke to was so nervous about asking Obama a question that she wrote it down in English on an index card and was practicing it over and over again in the chance that she might be picked. Although in the end she wasn't, she was still thrilled to see the US president and hear him speak. Many tried to ask their questions in English, in a way to communicate directly with Obama, but also to prove their English skills, which at times stuttered with nervousness.

It turns out that the 500 or so students were chosen by the government, many were members of the Communist Youth League, which is affiliated with President Hu Jintao.

Nevertheless, those listening in or watching the proceedings on the Internet were thrilled that a foreign leader had addressed the importance of freedom of expression and freedom of information.

"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 said. But, he added, "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."

Are senior Chinese leaders listening?


Mike Bates said...

Well i think they should just bag off and let Obama do his thing so far so good. Who care's if he don't twitter it's not like it matters anyways..

gung said...

it was a very good speech -genuine and right to the point.