Censorship of Obama in Beijing a Confidence Game

November 26, 2009 Updated: October 1, 2015
U.S. President Barack Obama tours the Great Wall on November 18, 2009 at Badaling, northwest of Beijing. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama tours the Great Wall on November 18, 2009 at Badaling, northwest of Beijing. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

The reviews are in for President Obama’s trip to China, and he has received sharp criticism for allowing his public appearances to be restricted or censored. Some have blamed Obama’s leadership, and some have understood the arrangements for this most restricted presidential visit in recent memory as a sign of the shift in power between the United States and China. In both cases, the censorship of Obama in China is understood in terms of the growing self-confidence of the Chinese regime.

The media and policy analysts are right to understand these events in terms of self-confidence, but they have completely misunderstood the role played by it. The Chinese regime censored Obama not because of excessive self-confidence, but because of a lack of self-confidence.

The restrictions on Obama’s visit were imposed by the Chinese side. Recent presidential visits have been quite different. In 1998, when President Clinton visited China, he addressed the student body of Beijing University. The entire event was broadcast through China Central Television to the rest of the country. Clinton even spoke about such a sensitive topic as the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.

During President Bush’s visit in 2002, he spoke to the students of Tsinghua University, and his speech was also nationally broadcast. Both Clinton and Bush’s speeches were broadcast uncensored, but the formal transcripts published by Xinhua News Agency were deliberately edited to remove some sensitive parts.

President Obama’s town hall meeting with Shanghai students chosen by Chinese authorities, however, wasn’t broadcast by the state media as was expected and promised.

The arrangements for a visit by the U.S. president are negotiated by both countries, but the final decision is made by the host state. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) only allows activities it can benefit from. Not understanding this point has led to misinterpreting the significance of some events during previous presidential visits.

For instance, during George W. Bush’s last two China trips, he attended churches in Beijing. Some said that in doing so he was showing support for religious freedom. In fact, within the context of China, his actions had the opposite effect. The two churches Bush visited were part of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Church and his attendance there conferred legitimacy on these branches of the communist state.

House Church Christians refuse to attend the Three-Self Patriotic Movement churches because in doing so they would be required to put the CCP above God. Because of this principled objection, House Church Christians are persecuted in China.

‘Openness and Progress’

On Nov. 17, Xinhuanet, the leading CCP mouthpiece, quoted a Hong Kong Daily News article as saying that Xinhua News Agency would broadcast live Obama’s town hall meeting with Shanghai students. It claimed, “That China allows the Chinese people to watch the process of the dialogue is no doubt a sign of openness and progress. It shows a gesture of hospitality towards Obama and the necessary manner and self-confidence of a great country.”

This is not the first time that Chinese media considered the live broadcast of a U.S. president’s speech as a sign of self-confidence.

A 2002 SouthChinanet article stated, “Facing Bush, the Chinese government expressed her own self-confidence. The Chinese government did not employ the psychological concept of ‘preventing peaceful evolution’ and so accepted the U.S. government’s request for a live broadcast.”

According to SouthChinanet, “Since initiating the reform and opening up of China, China has found the way of development that fits her own national condition and achieved a success recognized around the world.” This success “obviously gave China enough self-confidence.”

The Obama Shanghai dialogue with the students was not broadcast through any national media, but only through a small, local TV channel. The Web broadcast had a very bad signal and the Chinese state’s final, formal version of the Chinese translation made the speech hard to understand.

If a live, national broadcast of a presidential visit shows self-confidence, then today’s rulers of China no longer have it. Why?

‘Nine Commentaries’

China’s rulers would seem to have many reasons for more confidence, not less.

China’s economy is the third largest in the world. It probably will pass Japan to become the second largest one sometime next year. China’s total foreign exchange reserves have reached $1 trillion, including $700 billion in U.S. long-term bonds.

The regime has built the largest Internet firewall in the world. The most prominent human rights advocates are now in jail, including lawyer Gao Zhisheng, rights activist Hu Jia, and the self-taught lawyer Chen Guangcheng.

China held the most expensive Olympics last year and just celebrated 60 years of communist rule with an impressive military parade.

Of course, there are many things bothering the Party. One of them is that in the first quarter of 2009 there were 58,000 “mass incidents,” the Chinese state’s euphemism for strikes, street protests, roadblocks, and other forms of mass protests, according to chinaworker.info in Hong Kong.

But even if this represents a big increase from 120,000 incidents in 2008 and 60,000 in 2003, it’s just an old problem getting worse. And there are many other problems, but none of these can explain why the regime lost the confidence—except for one event.

What happened between 2002, when Bush’s speech to the students at Tsinghua University was broadcast nationally, and 2009, when Obama’s town hall was not, that can make such a difference?

Five years ago, on Nov. 19, 2004, The Epoch Times published the “Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party.” Although this publication has not drawn much media attention in Western society, it immediately caused a panic in the CCP leadership.

Only two months after the first publication, on Jan. 24, 2005, the Ministry of Public Security issued an internal memo “Special Action Plan for Nationwide Public Security Offices to Prevent and Suppress the Falun Gong’s Reactionary Propaganda for Inciting the Public to Read the Nine Commentaries,” according to one of the secret documents brought out of China by Hao Fengjun, the former 610 Officer in Tianjin Public Security Bureau who defected in June 2005 (the 610 Office is a department with authority over all parts of the security apparatus whose purpose is the persecution of Falun Gong).

According to Hao, in January 2005 police officers from his office started to investigate and persecute those who had renounced their Communist Party membership on the Web site of The Epoch Times. Such investigations took place nationwide because the order came from the Ministry of Public Security.

For the past five years, many more efforts have been put into preventing the spread of the “Nine Commentaries” and the promotion of the movement to quit the CCP. Some documents, orders, and meeting minutes concerning the regime’s efforts even can be found online.

For example, an article presented in a 2006 conference at Rongcheng City of Shandong Province stated, “In the Falun Gong reactionary materials, the most serious is the ‘Nine Commentaries.’ It causes the worst impact at the grassroots level. Currently, a large amount of books and DVDs have been found in our city.”

Several thousand miles away, a document issued by the Communist Youth League of Aksu Prefecture in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region states, “the damage and influence of the" Nine Commentaries" must be fully evaluated, the educational effort must be enhanced, and [people] must not listen, believe and spread [it].”

Such documents, memos, and notices can only be issued by the CCP central committee. When the documents speak of “the worst impact,” this really means that the “Nine Commentaries” are widely welcomed by the Chinese people.

The attempt to prevent the spread the “Nine Commentaries” is now being waged at the grassroots level of the Party and the state. The CCP has not been using its enormous propaganda machine as a countermeasure, because were it to do so, it would only call more attention to the “Nine Commentaries” and assist in spreading them. Instead, it has been quietly arresting those who promote the “Nine Commentaries” and quitting the CCP, putting them in jails or forced labor camps.

The Chinese communist regime tries to give people the impression that it is in the strongest position ever. But the CCP leaders know better: they are not.


Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.