By Ying Chan — President Obama’s town hall meeting with students in Shanghai was a highlight of his China trip. But more telling was the information war waged by the U.S. and the Chinese behind the scenes. Both sides tried to score points but both failed to win. In the end, it was technology that scored a small victory, offering a glimmer of hope for media openness in China.

The first salvo of the war was launched by the U.S. side on the eve of Obama’s arrival, when the US embassy invited a dozen noted bloggers from around China for a briefing about the visit. The unprecedented move immediately heightened vigilance on the Chinese side.

white house blog

[ABOVE: Screenshot from The White House Blog discussing Obama’s “town hall” with Chinese students in Shanghai.]

Then there was the bargain over the town hall meeting that the Obama team had wanted so badly. Negotiations over details of the meeting continued, down to the last hour. The U.S. team pushed for live television broadcast that would carry Obama’s face and words into the homes of the 1.3 billion people in China, where 97 percent of homes have TV. The Chinese side would not budge and decided that the meeting would be carried by Shanghai television to be aired in the city only. Xinhua.net, the online arm of China’s state news agency, would also “broadcast the meeting live.” That was the limit of how far the Chinese would go.

The Americans were not about to give up. They turned to the Internet which was then becoming a weapon in the media war. The White House hired ConnectSolutions, a California-based company, to stream live the Shanghai meeting on its own website. The CoNx team also unveiled a chat room, calling on all Chinese to submit questions for Obama on the occasion of his China visit. [Link to White House Live page.]

In the chat room, the anger over the censorship of the Internet in China was palpable. CoNx reported that “over 75 percent of the roughly 7,000 Chinese who submitted questions in the chat room cited internet censorship as their greatest concern.” Some compared the “Great Firewall of China” with the Berlin Wall, citing the 20th Anniversary of the fall of the Wall. One of the questions submitted later became the famous Twitter question that reverberated from Shanghai to the United States.

Not be outdone, Xinhua started soliciting questions and received several thousand questions by the closing of the poll. Not one question asked about Internet censorship, according to Xinhua.

Amidst the wrangling, the meeting went forward. But unlike previous visits by former presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, the meeting was not held on university campuses where presidential visits would attract crowds and gawkers. Instead, it was held at the Shanghai Museum of Science and Technology, located in Pudong, opposite Shanghai’s city center across the river. Students from eight universities were bused in. The area around the museum was cordoned off from the public. The museum itself was closed to visitors for two days ahead of the Presidential visit.

Further disappointments followed. As the town hall meeting started rolling, no video streaming showed up at Xinhua.net, only transcripts. Savvy Internet users had to turn to the White House website, where high definition video was served. In Beijing, the U.S. officials hosted viewing meetings for students and guests. “Many thousands more young (and not so young) people throughout China attended the event virtually in classrooms, coffee houses, living rooms, and at ‘watch parties’ organized by the U.S. Embassy and Consulates,” according to The White House Blog.

Meanwhile, the dueling continued inside the meeting hall. As the students were asking mostly soft questions, the Obama team advanced in an attempt to crack the Chinese information blockade. At Obama’s invitation, U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman fielded the President the now famous question on Internet freedom “on behalf of Chinese netizens.” With the easy serve, Obama got the opportunity to deliver a mini-lecture on the need for openness on the Internet. The maneuver broke through the Chinese defense line and became headlines for the Western media that next day. The answer also helped Obama address his liberal constituency back home who has been egging him on to play tough with China on human rights issues.

Even though Xinhua made claims of broadcasting the event in a “global exclusive,” CNN, Bloomberg and many other non-Chinese television stations managed to air the event live, using pool feeds from the Associated Press. Bloomberg did a decent job with a live cablecast. CNN was disappointing. Instead of letting Obama talk, Ed Henry, CNN’s White House correspondent who was traveling with the president, interjected often with his own remarks on camera. The worst came when CNN cut away to Henry when Obama addressed the Internet issue, his proudest moment of the show. On the Internet, angry bloggers threw curses and profanities.

In the meeting’s aftermath, the White House bragged that the town hall event was an “historic” public dialogue. That was true in a perverse way. Among all previous U.S. presidents’ meeting with Chinese students, the Obama one was the most controlled and managed. From the encounter, a few lessons could be learned.

First, Chinese authorities can maintain a high level of control using traditional means. Every aspect of the town hall meeting was scripted and managed, from choice of the meeting venue, the drilling of participants, to the questions asked.

Secondly, in spite of the tight control, cracks are showing. As a foreign government, the U.S. showed how it could challenge Chinese control of the Internet by serving as an information distributor. For the first time, the White House collected Chinese public opinion on Chinese soil and distributed information, in text and video form, throughout China.

Thirdly: China’s vibrant community of bloggers is challenging the government’s highhandedness. Twitter was blocked in China, but bloggers were sharing information online about the Obama visit, and tweeting real time throughout the town hall meeting. Challenge to the Internet censorship will grow.

Finally, the hundreds of Shanghai students at the town hall meeting were the biggest losers. They were ridiculed for lack of energy, poor English and asking softball questions to pander to Obama. “They talked according to formulae, first greeting or paying respect (to Obama), followed by self-introduction and then the question” said a blogger. But it was not the students’ fault that they were treated as stage sets. Adults have to take the blame for programming the young minds.

But there’s a glimmer of hope, the ubiquitous Internet has rendered society more transparent and all government must become more transparent. There is no turning back.

FURTHER READING:
Obama Wades Into Internet Censorship in China Address,” By Helene Cooper and David Barboza, The New York Times, November 17, 2009
Barack Obama Meets Shanghai Students in China,” By Tania Branigan, The Guardian, November 16, 2009
Chinese students, netizens and shops welcome Obama to Shanghai,” By Jean Yung, LA Times, November 15, 2009