Could Obama Get Around China's 'Great Firewall'?

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David Gray / Reuters

A worker dries shirts bearing an image of U.S. President Barack Obama dressed as China's late Chairman Mao Zedong at a printing factory on the outskirts of Beijing.

Updated November 16, 7.00am ET

The official U.S. buzzword for President Obama's visit to China this week is "pragmatic cooperation," but behind the scenes, U.S. diplomats have been aiming for something a little closer to subversion — at least when it comes to getting around China's "great firewall" of official censorship and information control.

American officials had been holding out hope that the Chinese would allow for live nationwide broadcast of the President's town hall with Chinese youth on Monday in Shanghai. But even as Obama got ready to board his flight to Shanghai on Sunday, U.S. diplomats were still negotiating the terms. "What we've said is simply that the President would like the opportunity to speak to a broad audience of the Chinese people," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. As it turns out, the town hall wasn't broadcast live on television but was rather shown on local Shanghai TV and streamed online on two major national internet portals, though the quality was choppy and made it hard to hear.

At the same time, White House officials had been preparing alternate means of broadcasting the town hall online. The event, which took place Monday at 12:45 p.m. local time, was shown live over, and Obama took a number of questions from an online Chinese audience. But it was the President's own remarks which will have made for the main headlines. Obama defending the freedom of the internet by stating that "I think that the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable." He also spoke frankly about the benefits of individual freedoms when saying, "We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation," before adding that unrestricted access to information and political participation are not principles held by the United States but "universal rights."

The State Department had also been reaching out to Chinese bloggers in anticipation of Monday's event. On Nov. 12, the U.S. embassy in Beijing invited a dozen prominent bloggers to a briefing on American policy toward China, both in person and via live Web feeds to the U.S. consulates in Shanghai and Guangzhou.

The group included well-known free-speech advocates, as well as Rao Jin, the founder of the nationalist website, which is critical of Western media coverage. The meeting quickly made the rounds online, with several commenters complimenting the U.S. diplomats for their openness. "The American officials showed tolerance, politeness and a democratic style because they were open to any question, even questions that are very controversial," Zhao Jing, a popular blogger who attended the meeting and writes under the pen name Michael Anti, told TIME.

There is a long history of Chinese officials censoring the comments of U.S. presidents. In 1984 when President Ronald Reagan gave a speech in Beijing, state-run China Central Television cut portions that referred to the Soviet Union, religion and democracy. During Obama's inaugural speech in January, China's state television cut away when the president referred to previous American generations that had faced down communism. The line that followed was also edited from television broadcasts and from transcripts on many Chinese news portals: "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

After a temporary easing up during the 2008 Olympics, China's system of online controls has grown noticeably stricter in recent months, and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook are now blocked. The decision to block Twitter followed the Iranian use of the social networking site in June, says Xiao Qiang, the director of the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley. Websites discussing sensitive topics like Tibet, the Tiananmen crackdown and the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement are also routinely blocked, and in the Xinjiang region, which experienced bloody ethnic riots in July, people are barred from public Internet access and international phone service. The Chinese censorship regime tends to allow some dissident information online, as long as it remains marginal. "It's not about absolute control," Xiao says. "It's about effective control."

Online outreach by the Obama Administration is designed in part to bypass such censorship, and increase direct communications with the Chinese people. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for one, has been particularly aggressive on the issue since taking office. During her first trip to Asia, she participated in a webchat interview on climate change in Beijing, hosted by the China Daily, during which she responded to questions submitted online. According to the state-owned newspaper, the chat drew more than 10.2 million page views, 50,000 comments and 7,000 questions.

Still, the media feeds into many misconceptions about America in China. During the U.S. embassy briefing in Beijing, Anti-CNN founder Rao told officials — in what he would later describe as an attempt at humor — that he had seen how the CIA uses extra-legal powers, on the American television show Prison Break and in the Transformers films. How could the U.S. protect Web users?, he asked. "I would recommend that you not use Prison Break and Transformers as your only guide to American culture and government," a U.S. official responded.