BEIJING – It was President Barack Obama’s first full day in China, jammed with morning meetings with city officials in Shanghai and afternoon sessions with central government leaders in Beijing.
But the headline event was easily his town hall meeting with a group of highly vetted students in Shanghai, during which he also took several questions submitted over the Internet. China’s blogosphere – the world’s largest with 350 million Internet users and 60 million bloggers – was buzzing before, during, and after the event.
Among English-speaking residents across China, the reaction veered between scorn and disappointment, particularly over Obama’s comment, "I’m a big supporter of non-censorship." He said this in response to a question about China’s Great Firewall, the online filtering and surveillance program run by the communist government’s Ministry of Public Security.
|Jason Reed / Reuters|
|U.S. President Barack Obama greets participants in a town hall-style meeting with future Chinese leaders at the Museum of Science and Technology in Shanghai on Monday.|
"It pains me to write this…but Obama’s performance this afternoon reminded me of nothing so much as an overly coached American businessman on his first trip to China, so concerned about what he should or should not say that he forgets what he wanted to say in the first place, and ends up going home with nothing but a hotel bill and empty promises," Adam Minter, an American writer, wrote from his home in Shanghai.
On Twitter, which along with Facebook continues to be blocked in China and is accessible only through a proxy server, Western commentary also took exception to the foreign media coverage of Obama’s speech. One disgruntled Twitterer wrote: "Guardian headline sez: ‘Obama criticizes internet censorship in China.’ O Rly? He only obliquely, generally endorsed online freedom."
But another Twitterer made the point that by simply mentioning these issues Obama is raising some awareness. "If Obama’s visit has let more CN ppl know twttr & www censorship, it’s not in vain."
Indeed, within minutes of the president’s town hall meeting, the top two Chinese Google searches were "What’s Twitter" and "Obama Shanghai."
Still, it’s unlikely that Obama’s speech was seen by very many people in China. It was not broadcast live across the country on television. Instead, it was shown on local Shanghai TV and streamed on two Internet portals, but the quality wasn’t very good.
Even hours after the event was over, we at NBC’s Beijing bureau had difficulty finding decent video of Obama’s town hall meeting on the Internet. It was available on whitehouse.gov, but many Chinese users complained about the quality of the video stream. It was also available on Facebook, but that wasn’t much help since that site is censored in mainland China.
|VIDEO: Obama holds town hall in Shanghai|
‘He’s such a great speaker!’
Still, reaction from Chinese bloggers who did manage to see or hear about the speech was a bit more varied than their English-speaking compatriots. The chat forum on China’s number one Web portal, sina.com.cn, received more than 10,000 comments from all over the country.
Quite a few Chinese netizens heaped praised Obama.
"The president is very eloquent and smart. He’s such a great speaker!" one wrote. "President’s Obama’s speech is very pragmatic! He’s not only based on American interests, but also of the world! He’s the most impressive leader in American history, and we can feel his deep thoughts and the responsibility he’s carrying for human progress!" wrote another.
Other comments were short and more cursory. One blogger wrote, "He’s so young and cute!"
Still some expressed doubt over what can possibly come from Obama’s words. "Obama is a great speaker, but the Sino-American relationship is not built on words. Chinese are not just listeners; they are partners too. Don’t say one thing and do something else," wrote one blogger.
"Why does trade protectionism always follow big compliments to China? And when will America stop selling weapons to Taiwan?" wrote another.
And another wrote, "We don’t need America’s support or opposition to take back Taiwan…this is our internal affair and the U.S. should stay neutral."
Other netizens expressed dissatisfaction with the questions asked by students. "Why do the students only ask such soft questions?" And, "Why were Tibet and Xinjiang not mentioned at all?" Another wrote, "Such low-level questions! Poor college kids!"
These unhappy commentators may have been unaware that all the students invited to participate in the event had been cautiously hand-picked days before the meeting.
However, just hours after the town hall event, the "students" who posed questions became subjects of China’s Internet vigilantes, who take it upon themselves to investigate people in the public sphere suspected of corrupt or immoral behavior.
Marked for their unfettered zeal, the literal translation of the Chinese term for this ad hoc group of sleuthing online activists is: "human flesh search engine."
Many of these amateur Internet detectives pointed out that the "first student" who asked Obama a question, Cheng Xi, is no ordinary student. Cheng is actually deputy chief of the Committee of Communist Youth League of Fudan University, in addition to being a student.