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Touring Asia, Obama has town hall in China

November 19th, 2009

On Nov. 16, President Barack Obama declared that China and the United States do not have to be adversaries even though there are differences between the two nations. The announcement was made at a town hall meeting with several hundred college students in Shanghai.

The President said the United States did not wish to impose any form of government on another nation. However, he did say there are certain principles that all people must share.

Free access to information is one of those principles that the President believes all people should have. China’s government has control over the Internet in China and can restrict access to social networking and other Web sites that they deem controversial.

Brent Brossman, a communications professor at John Carroll University and director of the JCU debate team, said, “Ideas are liberating. They represent power. There are reasons why countries that fear their own people try hard to restrict the free flow of information on the Internet.”

According to The New York Times, however, Obama “tip-toed” around the controversial topic when he told students that a free and unfettered Internet is a source of strength, not weakness.

According to Brossman, “We need a free flow of responsible information – and that balance is tough to achieve.”

The President also said he was against censorship. “I have a lot of critics in the United States who can say all kinds of things about me; I actually think that makes our democracy stronger and it makes me a better leader, because it forces me to hear opinions that I don’t want to hear,” he said.

The President took eight questions.  Four of them were from the student audience, the other four were selected from the hundreds submitted over the Internet

According to CNN, the President’s town hall meeting was not broadcast on any of China’s state-run television networks, though it was shown locally on Shanghai’s Phoenix TV.

In the United States, the event was streamed live (with Chinese language translation) on the White House Web site, as well as on the White House Facebook page. The town hall was a welcome change to the Chinese students who tend to not be used to such an event.

Yao Fei, a modern Chinese history student at Shanghai Normal University told USA Today, “I know the town hall meeting is traditional in U.S. political culture, but it’s not here in China. We students welcome events like this. I hope our leaders would do [town hall meetings] too.”

However, this town hall was somewhat different than what the President may have been used to back in the U.S.

Instead of a bustling crowd talking over the blaring rock music, the President was greeted by a nearly silent group of 500 students, most of whom were hand picked by Chinese leaders and had close ties to the Communist Youth League, which is closely affiliated to President Hu Jintao.

Once he completed the town hall meeting in Shanghai, the President flew to Beijing. His schedule included tours of the Forbidden City and Great Wall and several meetings with Chinese leaders to discuss pressing issues like climate change, stabilizing the world economy, and negotiations about the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea.

China has been hesitant to support stricter sanctions against either North Korea or Iran, a position which has frustrated the United States. China has also been hesitant to set a national emissions reduction goal even though it is one of the largest polluters in the world.

However, it has still taken a number of measures to make its economy more environmentally friendly.