‘Soft arrests’ Preceded Soft Censorship when Obama Spoke to Chinese Students

November 17, 2009 Updated: January 3, 2010

A week before President Obama got to China, several dissidents had already been put under “soft arrest” or were detained, and soon after the president’s town hall meeting with students in Shanghai on Nov. 16, China’s censors took measures to downplay its reach.

The “soft arrests” (ruanjin), which means being monitored and followed by police, or put under house arrest, were noted by the NGO Chinese Human Rights Defenders in a press release of Nov. 16.

“Police across the country have clamped down on activists, veteran petitioners, and dissidents as U.S. President Obama arrives in China to begin a four-day visit,” they wrote. The authorities were said to be concerned that these critics may have tried to meet Obama, or visit U.S. officials or foreign journalists.

Zeng Jinyan, wife of imprisoned human rights campaigner Hu Jia, told the Financial Times that security officers would come to her apartment and explain how her movements would be restricted during the sensitive time.

Also among those detained was Zhao Lianhai, an advocate for parents of children who were poisoned by melamine-tainted milk. Mr. Zhao took up the cause after his own three-year-old son was poisoned.

Zhao was taken from his home on the night of Nov. 13 by about a dozen police officers from Beijing’s Daxing District Public Security Bureau and Tuanhe substation, according to the NGO Human Rights in China. When Zao resisted, police officers accused him of "provoking an incident" in the summons.

Chinese propaganda officials seemed to apply similar soft tactics in dampening the reach of Obama’s comments on freedom of information. Without directly blocking the speech, they instead attempted to limit its impact.

The speech was supposed to be broadcast live on the largest state-owned national broadcasters, but at the last minute Chinese authorities restricted it to “Shanghai Television,” a local station with limited reach (and whose Web site may be infected with malware, according to browsers Firefox and Chrome).

Articles with headlines about the remarks Obama made against censorship were posted then removed from Xinhua, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, and also from popular Internet portals.

Obama had responded to a question read out by the U.S. ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, drawn from the U.S. Embassy’s Web site, and selected by a member of the U.S. press corps. "In a country with 350 million Internet users and 60 million bloggers, do you know of the firewall?" the question said, and "should we be able to use Twitter freely."

Obama responsed by not directly criticizing the CCP’s censorship of the Internet and media, which is pervasive, but instead talked about the benefits of an open society. “I’ve always been a strong supporter of open Internet use. I'm a big supporter of noncensorship. This is part of the tradition of the United States,” Obama said.

“I'm a big supporter of not restricting Internet use, Internet access … The more open we are, the more we can communicate. And it also helps to draw the world together,” he said.

NetEase, a popular Chinese news aggregator, had given a commentary on the subject, which was later removed; Chinese Twitter users’ links to it led only to an empty page with a “no such subject” message.

Xinhua also removed commentaries it originally posted about the remarks, though did not delete the remarks from the transcript of Obama’s address. On Xinhua’s portal page set up to cover Obama’s China trip, this part of the transcript is omitted, however. The question and answer section of the transcript is nested in a box, but ends when Obama asks Huntsman, the ambassador, to read out the question about China’s firewall. Instead, users have to click through to see that question.

Obama’s arrival and speech in Shanghai were also not among the key stories of CCTV’s 7 p.m. broadcast, as noted by The Washington Post. That broadcast represents the CCP’s official line on major events, yet it neglected to mention the town hall meeting with students, instead only noting that Obama had arrived in the southern city.

Some activists and several Web sites claimed that the CCP had either screened or handpicked students to participate in the town hall meeting. They said the students had been trained in an undisclosed location before the event, according to the FT.

The White House had hoped the town hall would be a key part of Obama’s trip.