Obama’s townhall in Shanghai

Obama’s townhall in Shanghai

This afternoon in Shanghai, U.S. President Barack Obama held a townhall-style meeting with university students. It was an event that his staff had worked hard to include on his China trip itinerary. After a brief speech extolling the importance of core values to the success of the United States as a nation and Americans as individuals, Obama took questions from the audience and online.

It has since come to light that not all of the questions came from bonafide students. One questioner was a vice director of daily affairs for the Communist Youth League; another was a young-looking teacher. Obama’s answers about Internet freedom weren’t heard by most remote audiences because several networks, including CNN, mysteriously cut away for commentary at that moment. The response among expats in China was, by and large, negative — with many complaining Obama had minced his words, talking for instance of “universal rights” rather than “human rights.” If one is looking to be cynical, there’s plenty of fodder.

On the other hand, from the point of view of most Chinese I’ve spoken, these official efforts at censorship might have been silly, or nefarious, but they didn’t have much impact. The notion of a president taking questions, not a frequent occurrence in China, was itself the point. The symbolism was more arresting, to them, than the content. “Why does he want to talk to Chinese students?” one 29-year-old Chinese woman asked me, without irony. She was puzzled, impressed, and a bit amused at the spectacle. 

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images