How Obama Was Censored in China

November 26, 2009 Updated: November 28, 2009
A student asks U.S. President Barack Obama (L) a question during a town hall meeting at the Museum of Science and Technology in Shanghai, on Nov. 16.  (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
A student asks U.S. President Barack Obama (L) a question during a town hall meeting at the Museum of Science and Technology in Shanghai, on Nov. 16. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

If President Obama had hopes during his trip to China last week of speaking directly to the Chinese people on such sensitive topics as human rights, those hopes were foiled by the careful arrangements of his hosts and the fallout from an ongoing power struggle.

Obama’s first chance to do so was the U.S.-style town hall meeting between Obama and Chinese university students that took place in Shanghai on Nov. 16.

The meeting, though, was only broadcast by a local television station, not by a national TV station. Some Web sites had a live online broadcast, but the quality was so bad that his speech could hardly be understood.

Some Web sites did publish the entire transcript of his dialogue with the students—for 27 minutes. Then the transcripts were taken down and cleaned up by the Chinese authorities.

Only politically trusted students were selected to attend the meeting. Liu Yufen, 21, a student from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, said that he and other selected fellow classmates went through training for a whole afternoon prior to the meeting.

The questions asked by the students in the hall were written by the authorities. The Chinese netizens criticized the questions asked by the students as being “Xiao Er Ke”—childish, a Chinese expression for something with no depth.

For example, the first question was “So what measures will you take to deepen this close relationship between cities of the United States and China? And Shanghai will hold the World Exposition next year. Will you bring your family to visit the Expo?”

After one person asked Obama about his winning of the Nobel Prize, another person asked about it again, “I want to ask you in the other aspect that since it is very hard for you to get such kind of an honorable prize, and I wonder and we all wonder that—how you struggled to get it. And what’s your university/college education that brings you to get such kind of prizes?”

The question that pushed the regime’s limits did not come from the students inside the hall, but was asked online. It was read by U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman. The question was “In a country with 350 million Internet users and 60 million bloggers, do you know of the firewall? Should we be able to use Twitter freely?”

The question referred to China’s Great Firewall, the Chinese regime’s Internet censorship system. Obama’s remarks supporting Internet freedom were cut out from China’s official transcript.

Security guards remove a giant Time magazine cover unfurled by activists from environmental group Greenpeace with an image of U.S. (Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images)
Security guards remove a giant Time magazine cover unfurled by activists from environmental group Greenpeace with an image of U.S. (Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese netizens discovered that at least two questioners in the audience were not bonafide students. ”Student” Cheng Xi is the executive deputy director of the Research Office of the Communist Youth League of Fudan University. “Student” Huang Lihe is the secretary of the Communist Youth League of the School of Foreign Languages, Tongji University. His blog, which talked about him being a hardworking teacher, was removed after it was dug out by the netizens. The discovery of the fake students with Youth League credentials was posted on many blogs and forums in China, and not surprisingly, many of those posts were also immediately taken down.

Obama’s second chance was a joint press conference with Hu Jintao on Nov. 17. Rather than follow the Western custom of taking questions at a press conference after remarks are given, however, Obama followed the Chinese regime’s custom where no questions are asked.

During his meeting with Hu Jintao on Nov. 17, Obama arranged to give himself a third chance to reach the Chinese people: he requested that he be interviewed by the Nanfang Weekend, a newspaper under the Nanfang Newspaper Media Group, one of the most liberal state-owned newspapers, headquartered in Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province.

Hu OK’d the interview and instructed the CCP’s Central Committee Propaganda Department to arrange it on Nov. 18. The Propaganda Department followed his instructions and Nanfang Weekend had an exclusive interview with Obama for 12 minutes.

Of course, the questions asked were all from a list that the Propaganda Department created. Even so, this exclusive interview was still a great honor to a relatively liberal newspaper, and the Obama team felt that Obama had finally managed to find a subtle way to send his message of supporting freedom of speech. Nanfang Weekend prepared to publish the interview on Nov. 19.

But things did not turn out as planned. Li Changchun is part of the faction headed by Jiang Zemin that competes with Hu for power. Li is a member of the Standing Committee of the CCP’s Central Committee Political Bureau, which is in charge of propaganda, and was annoyed that Hu had bypassed him by giving an order directly to the Propaganda Department. He therefore ordered the Propaganda Department to retaliate against Nanfang Weekend by not allowing it to print the interview.

The U.S. Embassy then weighed in to pressure the Propaganda Department. Facing a diplomatic crisis, the Propaganda Department gave in. It let the interview be printed, but Obama’s discussion of the human rights issue in China and of media freedom had to be cut out. It also didn’t allow Nanfang Weekend to print two other articles about Obama. And it ordered all other media not to republish Nanfang Weekend’s interview.

The Nanfang Weekend newspaper with one-half page left blank in protest at censorship of its interview with President Obama. (Internet picture)
The Nanfang Weekend newspaper with one-half page left blank in protest at censorship of its interview with President Obama. (Internet picture)
The Nanfang Weekend was printed a half day later than its normal publishing schedule. People surprisingly found out that the newspaper was printed with half a page blanked out in protest. In the empty block, there were two lines in Chinese: “Not everyone will become a famous person, but everyone can read here to understand China.”

This is a rare case of a state-owned newspaper printing a blank section in protest. In the memory of many Chinese who were educated by the CCP, printing a blank newspaper page only happened in the era of the Kuomintang (the nationalist party that the CCP finally defeated in 1949 in a struggle over who would rule China). The Kuomintang had not allowed the CCP’s Xinhua Daily to print some articles, and so the Xinhua Daily had printed a blank page to protest.

Nanfang Weekend dared to protest this time because it can leverage the political influence of Hu and Obama. In almost all cases, the newspapers listen quietly to the Propaganda Department or discipline themselves before the Propaganda Department has reason to speak to them.

The Chinese regime has been promoting the idea that it is developing a “harmonious society” in China. With the deft handling of Obama’s visit to China, the world got an opportunity to see what the role of media will be in such a society.

 

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