“Obama and Chinese Netizens”

The following is a translation of this post from Chang Ping’s blog.


A few days ago I received an invitation from the US Embassy saying that an advance briefing for would be held simultaneously via video in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, mainly discussing Sino-US relations and President Obama’s visit to China. Because I was busy, I didn’t attend, but I read the Twitter updates of attendees. From these updates, it seems “tearing down walls” on the internet was a focal point of discussion. To use the language of the government, it’s a problem of freedom of information and freedom of speech. Many of the attendees hope that this visit of Obama’s can help push forward the opening up of the internet in China.

There were also those in attendance who feel that the “problem of tearing down walls [on the internet, i.e., internet censorship] really doesn’t represent the mainstream [opinion], most Chinese people don’t worry about freedom of speech, they only worry about freedom of business and the freedom to travel to America” [to do business]. The embassy replied: listen to the voices of those outside the mainstream media, that is exactly the purpose of the advance briefing. This response, while wonderful, also quietly changes the conception of “mainstream”. The former was talking about the majority of the Chinese people, the latter was talking about the media that’s controlled by the Chinese government.

Actually, regardless of whether it’s “mainstream”, regardless of the specifics, it’s impossible to avoid talking about the problem of freedom of speech on the internet. This small-scale meeting was broadcast live by the American side, and the Chinese officials had no choice but to temporarily allow access to twitter, so this [meeting] itself was a nominal challenge to the usual way of doing things. Moreover, [look at] who was invited: “famous bloggers”. Immediately following that, the American embassy in Guangzhou announced the details of Obama’s town hall meeting with young people in Shanghai; this was seen as one of the results of the advance briefing with bloggers. There’s even information that during Obama’s meeting he’ll have a secret meeting with a [famous] internet personage. At the same time, netizens discovered that some once-banned foreign websites like Picasa and Blogspot have recently been unblocked.

The importance Obama places on the internet is undeniable, as he himself was a beneficiary of the internet during the 2008 presidential election. Moreover, freedom of speech has always been a principle American presidents must stress. But whether or not he can really help Chinese netizens to break down the “Great Firewall of China” is still in doubt. I feel some Chinese netizens have set their hopes too high, and fear that they may end up disappointed. First of all, the internet isn’t the purpose of Obama’s current trip. From the topics already announced, climate change, economic equilibrium, hostilities in Afghanistan and Iraq, the revaluation of the RMB, etc., will be the focal points of his discussions with Chinese leaders. Secondly, while being interviewed by a Reuters reporter a few days ago, Obama suggested that China and America are cooperative partners and also competing opponents in a friendly way. Because of this, he can’t really take an unyielding position on freedom of speech or human rights.

However, I don’t deny the effectiveness of international pressure, nor do I look down on netizens (even if they aren’t the mainstream) for expressing their passions so strongly on this issue. At the same time, the underlying structure of Chinese society is slowly changing. These factors could come together at any time to greatly expand the scope and power of [free] discourse. After attending the China Blogger’s Conference last week, this feeling is even stronger.

Lianzhou [site of the blogger conference] is in the northwestern part of Guangdong province, with underground rivers, gorges and other excellent natural sights. It also has the literary tradition left by men like Han Yu and Liu Yuxi, but still, such a group of people [as were at the blogger conference] is rarely seen. The internet lovers, scholars, and reporters came from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong, as well as the USA, France, England, etc. The local tourism and government boards were notified that this group of people has great publishing power on the internet, and their coming was not only the arrival of tourists but also a good advertising opportunity. Because of this, local officials welcomed the meeting, and they were assisted by China Telecom. The meeting was set up by the entrance to a cave/underground river; sponsoring companies provided a support car and set up internet in the area, and the meeting’s coverage of twitter, blogs, etc., was broadcast live.

What was interesting was that, from another angle, the meeting was still as “sensitive” as ever. The night we got there, the hotels were strictly required to provide information on their guests; the local PSB chief came and took a list of everyone staying in the hotel, then sat in the lobby guarding until deep into the night. On the second day of the conference, people were saying over forty police officers came, someone was videotaping it. The meeting not only had invited some “sensitive” [i.e. controversial] netizens to participate, but also spent a lot of time discussing how to use internet technology to pursue freedom of speech.

But this really wasn’t a political meeting; the attendees also discussed how to best use technology for commerce, for the public good, and for spreading science. To put it precisely, everyone is using the internet to search for better ways of living.

Actually, the meeting itself is a way of living. It is loose and spontaneous, but the attendees paid their expenses themselves, and the workers were all volunteers. It made me think of a music festival, most people come here to feel happy and to seek like-minded folks.

Because of all this, I saw a new power developing upwards from the bottom layer of society. Those who hold this power both hope that politicians will reform and open up the internet and use the internet to build their own lives. Political slogans are gray, but the tree of life is green.

0 thoughts on ““Obama and Chinese Netizens””

  1. Regardless of the netizens’ political preferences from tianya to mop to anti-cnn, my observation is almost everyone thinks the SARFT and GAPP are abominations.


  2. I hear that Chinese officials are ‘uncomfortable’ with the town hall meeting going live on web cam. They’re still haggling with the Americans, preferring a scripted event. How very CCP.


  3. Stuart,

    In the China view, America’s relations is always unpredictable. One day some American official will come praising China while working out with some kind of economic deal with the US. Another day that same offical will criticize China for not dealing with their ‘Human Rights’ issues. So China’s leaders will put out a red carpet for Obama and hope for the best.

    Some interesting stuff from Chinadaily though:


    China seems to be optimistic about this meeting with Obama. Maybe it is a shift of Obama’s policy for China?


  4. pug_ster,

    If they’re smart, Hu and Obama will develop a personal bond away from the negotiating table. This might go some way to alleviating the residual distrust and help to calm tempers in times of crisis. Unlike his predecessor, I’m sure that Obama has the sense, charisma, and inclination to go one-on-one with Hu.


  5. Stuart,

    Although Obama is a charismatic person, I doubt that Hu and Obama wants to develop a personal bond. Even Obama says that China and the US are competitors which is not exactly trustful. There are many issues with China and the US are on the opposite sides of the fence on: Tibet, Xinjiang, Trade, currency, North Korea, etc… Until Obama stop giving out colorful speeches and start acting on them, I doubt that this residual distrust would go away.


  6. “Hu is not as good a speaker in Chinese as obama is in English. Not from what I’ve seen anyway.”

    Hu sets a decent, albeit somewhat robotic, standard of elocution based entirely on scripted events and speeches. The truer measure is not just one of delivery of pre-arranged content, but also of the capacity to respond ad-lib in debates, town halls, and press conferences. Chinese leaders are unwilling to throw themselves into that arena. Pity.


  7. The whole freedom of speech is fine and all but what if the U.S use this for their own political usage? I mean, the U.S have over thrown a lot of government because their society have freedom of speech. In China there is about 1.3 billion people it is easy for any government to recruit dead hard “freedom fighter”.


  8. Stuart,

    Obama is nothing but a motivational speaker. When it comes to leadership, he has little backbone. I rather hear a terrible speaker (to you) like Hu but someone who can actually run a country.


  9. And there, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly the kind of paranoia that is the reason why the CCP won’t dismantle the firewall. *points to third eye*


  10. Pug_ster,

    Mind elaborating a bit on why you think Obama can’t run the US effectively? Contrary to what the republicans are constantly shouting, he’s done a pretty good job of pulling the US out of the economic downturn by jumpstarting GDP growth rate and has set the stage for engaging the Muslim world effectively. Given the scope of the amount of problems he has to deal with, I’d say he’s done a pretty good job, as opposed to his predecessor who would just decide to avoid certain issues entirely until they became catastrophic. The only thing I’ve been less than happy with is his weakness on health care reform where he’s failed to push effectively for the desired reformation.


  11. @pug_ster: Gotta agree with Josh on this one. He’s only been in office for a year, and keep in mind it’s harder to run a country when you have an opposition party. How effective would Hu be, I wonder, if there were an entire 24-hour news channel dedicated to exposing his every flaw (both real and imagined) and broadcasting those flaws to the entire nation.

    I’m not saying Hu couldn’t handle that, but it’s really not the same sort of thing as running a one-Party country, I don’t think.


  12. Josh,

    Obama did nothing but postponed the inevitable, US is going to fall on its price on its debt and it won’t take long when China will take its place. 20 years ago a US president like Bush or Reagan would lecture China on things like Human rights, but today Obama is basically mum on this. It is because the US doesn’t have any more bargaining chips to poke China with and both of them know it.

    The US being the global hegemony for the last 60 years has nothing but been disastrous, spending money on useless wars while neglecting problems back home like healthcare and national debt. That’s the downfall of US, yet they only look at short term band aid solutions, but doesn’t see anything 10 years over the horizon.

    China has its own problems too, like corruption and human rights. I don’t like it either yet it is needed to for the future development of China.


  13. Yeah, I’m sorry I forgot about all that stuff. I guess you’re right and rather than anything good coming of the Obama presidency, the US will instead implode, its people will revert to tribal hierarchy, and New York City will sink into the ocean.

    Additionally, I can totally see how human rights abuses like black jails, oppression of rights like freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and government authorized hooligans like the chengguan, added to rampant corruption and outright embezzlement are absolutely necessary for China’s development.

    By the way, I like butter sauce to dip with my river crab.


  14. “…it won’t take long when China will take its place.”

    If that happens without significant political reform in China, today’s problems are going to seem like a competition between neighbours to see who can produce the best looking lawn.


  15. Josh,

    Personally, I don’t think this country will be better in the next 4 years. If we are going to comtemplate the republicans fault this has certainly not solved the issue. Maybe the democratic process is the problem.


    When I voted 2 weeks ago, I wasn’t exactly enthuastic because both clowns won’t fix the problems. So I picked what I think is the better of the 2 (the one who won’t turn the city upside down.) Personally, I would gladly give up my voting rights to get someone who fix the city’s problems. Ultimately, you want some offical, elected or not, to produce the better lawn.


    There are thousands of illegal mines out there yet china realizes that they can’t shut them down because they need coal. Prostitution is illegal in china yet they are needed for ‘social stability’ of men.


  16. Josh

    “And there, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly the kind of paranoia that is the reason why the CCP won’t dismantle the firewall. *points to third eye*”

    1) lets see the U.S is still following the Truman doctrine ( containment of Communist )
    2) Reinforcing the Military bases around China.
    3) supporting the terrorist group like the exile Tibetan groups.
    4) Will fight China if China ever “invade” Taiwan.
    5) Selling weapons to beef up India.
    6) stigmatize China as this new evil empire.

    please you going to tell me if U.S have the chance to overthrown the government by spread their propaganda they wouldn’t do it?


  17. “No wonder your president has to be an actor. He’s got to look good on television.”
    — observed by the character Doc Brown in the year 1955 in the movie Back to the Future, when overcoming his initial disbelief that Ronald Reagan would be the future U.S. president in 1985.

    Americans judge and choose their presidents almost entirely based on how good they look and sound on television.

    This alone explains a great deal of the differences between the U.S. president and the leaders of other countries, including China.


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