U.S. President Obama’s town-hall meeting in Shanghai turned out to be much ado about nothing: generous words for his hosts, and no contentious issues like trade or Tibet tackled head on, just generic and diplomatically couched praise for the universal values of freedom of religion, speech and political expression, with the code words used resonating more outside the country than in. Indeed, much of the human rights message may well have ben aimed more at Obama’s audience at home, where he is being criticized for giving China a free pass on the subject.
Most Chinese, of course, would have been unable to see the meeting as it was only broadcast locally in Shanghai and not on national TV (as former President Bill Clinton’s equivalent was when he visited China). State media reports concentrated on Obama’s more upbeat remarks about the Sino-American relationship: “the United States does not seek to contain China’s rise and he welcomes China as a ‘strong, prosperous and successful member of the community of nations'”, Xinhua reported.
Foreign press seem to have been at a different meeting. Their headlines are dominated by the U.S. president’s call for greater internet freedom for Chinese (in response to a question e-mailed to the U.S. embassy in China, so how much of a coincidence is that?) The meeting was webcast (reluctantly on the Chinese side) but, despite pre-meeting briefings of Chinese bloggers by American embassy and consulate staffs, much off the online discussion is taking place outside the country since social media sites like Twitter and Facebook are blocked. Obama’s call for greater Internet freedom in China was taken off the NetEase’s home page by the censors within half an hour.
Two worlds, two messages. As the U.S. president heads for snowy Beijing and the business end of the visit, both sets of spin masters must be satisfied with a job well done in Shanghai.