Posts tagged: Shanghai Town Hall

The Obama Visit to China – What the U.S. Press Missed

By , November 23, 2009
DSC04715Originally Posted on the Huffington Post.
 

 

 Beijing, China – The U.S. press has not been kind to President Barack Obama and his recent visit to China.  Claiming that the U.S.’ tone has become conciliatory toward China, that the trip “yielded precious little” and even oddly comparing the Obama Administration’s behavior on the visit to a one-party, authoritarian regime, the U.S. press has all but designated the trip a failure.

But the trip was most certainly not a failure and in many ways fulfilled the U.S. press’ predictions – an event filled with a huge agenda covering a multitude of global issues, likely offering few deliverables, and probably playing down, at least publically, human rights.

So if the trip confirmed the press’ earlier predictions, then what’s got their panties all in a bunch?  Perhaps the one thing that upsets the press more than anything is a lack of access, and on this trip, the press certainly played second fiddle.  Questions were not taken from the press during last Tuesday’s press conference and very little other access was offered to the President.  But with only a day and a half in Beijing, this trip was not really about the press.

But in measuring President Obama’s trip based solely on their access, or lack of, the U.S. press has failed to report on some pretty substantial results of President Obama’s trip to China.  In what you likely will not find in other media outlets that are still licking their wounds from an alleged snub, below are some of the surprising deliverables from the visit.    

1.  Increased Military-to-Military Contact and High Level Military Exchanges

If the lack of communication between the U.S. and Chinese militaries does not keep you up at night, well it should.  The U.S. has a better relationship with Russia’s military than it does with China’s, but has more potential to cross paths with China’s because of the U.S.’ military presence in Asia.  Without proper channels of communication between the two militaries, a small skirmish can easily become a major crisis, as President Obama knows from his first months in office when Chinese navy ships circled and threatened a U.S. navy vessel in the South China Sea. 

Adding to the lack of communication is China’s broad interpretation of its “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ). A chinese-fleet-review-a-ch-008country’s EEZ extends 200 miles from the coast and gives the country sovereign rights over economic activities in those waters (usually the country uses its economic zone to search for natural resources).  By China’s broad definition, its sovereign rights in the EEZ expand outside of the economic realm, permitting it to interfere with other countries’ ships that enter its EEZ.  The U.S., as well as most other countries, perceives the EEZ as providing solely economic sovereignty for the coastal state, allowing other countries’ ships free access.  For the U.S., this also includes ships that are conducting military surveillance on the coastal state (for an excellent assessment of these different interpretations, see Margaret K. Lewis’ “An Analysis of State Responsibility for the Chinese-American Airplane Collision Incident”).  Needless to say, these different interpretations only add to the tensions between the two militaries. 

In the U.S.-China Joint Statement issued last week, much needed progress was made on the military front, especially in terms of communication.  High level exchanges between the U.S. and Chinese militaries will continue, with the Chief of the General Staff of the China’s People’s Liberation Army, General Chen Bingde, visiting the U.S. and both Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen making a trip to China.

In regards to differing definitions of the EEZ, the Joint Statement alludes to this issue, showing that the two sides likely discussed and acknowledged the problem (From the Joint Statement: “The United States and China agreed to handle through existing channels…maritime issues in keeping with norms of international law and on the basis of respecting each other’s jurisdictions and interests”).  Granted they failed to reach a compromise, but this is not an issue that will be easily solved.  Just discussing this sensitive topic is progress. 

2.  Both Public and Private Discussion of Human Rights

Interestingly, a press that largely ignored this issue prior to President Obama’s trip is making a big deal of his “silence” on human rights violations in China.  Last I checked though, freedom of speech is usually regarded as one such right and President Obama discussed this issue rather bluntly and passionately at the Shanghai town hall.  While it is debatable as to whether focusing on freedom of expression on the internet is sufficient to assist China with a development of a civil society and a rule of law, it is difficult to argue that President Obama did not publically bring up the subject of human rights. 

Furthermore, in his letter written to China’s Southern Weekend newspaper, President Obama stressed the importance of a free press.  True, this letter was not permitted to be circulated to a wider audience, but it portrays the President’s continued emphasis, both publically and privately on human rights.

The Joint Statement also discusses human rights in general and calls for the next official human rights dialogue between the U.S. and China to be held by the end of February 2010 in Washington, D.C.  The Joint Statement also stressed the importance of rule of law in China and agreed to reconvene the U.S.-China Legal Experts Dialogue (see the Dui Hua Foundation website for further background).  With the increasing push back by the Chinese government in the area of rule of law, especially as it pertains to civil rights and civil liberties, deepening cooperation is an important deliverable.

It is true that the Obama Administration has opted more for a strategy of quiet engagement on this issue.  Whether the approach is effective remains to be seen.  This past summer, the Administration was able to secure the release of public interest attorney Xu Zhiyong through behind the scenes pressure on the Chinese government.  However, almost immediately after President Obama left China, the Beijing police apprehended and beat public interest lawyer Jiang Tianyong (pronounce Geeang Tian-young) as he was walking his 7 year old daughter to school.  While Mr. Jiang has since been released, he is under very tight surveillance.  Perhaps if President Obama had mentioned the plight and importance of public interest attorneys in China, the arrest of Mr. Jiang might not have happened.  Or maybe it would have.

Either way, the U.S. press’ conclusion that President Obama “soft-peddled” human rights on his trip does not appear to ring true.  Human rights was certainly discussed, both publically and privately, it just appears that perhaps China was not listening. 

3.  Clean Energy and Climate Change

As expected, the U.S. and China entered into a series of cooperative agreements pertaining to clean energy and climate change technology.  While neither side agreed to emission targets, the level of detail provided for in the issued agreements was more than anticipated.  Most interestingly, the U.S.’ Environmental Protection Agency and China’s National Development Reform Commission signed a memorandum of cooperation to help China develop its capacity to measure its greenhouse gas inventories.  This is no small feat.  China’s does not currently have the capacity to accurately measure its greenhouse gas emissions and thus, if it was to agree to emission targets, would be unable to provide verifiable data.  China’s lack of capacity on this front has rightly been a sticking point for many in the U.S. Congress, preventing the passage of domestic climate change legislation that would be used to bind the U.S. internationally.

This memorandum of cooperation is the first step to enable China to agree to emission targets and for the rest of the world to believe them. 

President Obama’s visit to China was certainly not overly exciting but it was far from the failure that the U.S. press has made it out to be.  It also does not signify the U.S.’ decline as some alarmist media outlets have claimed.  Instead, the visit was a series of tough negotiations between two global powers.  Both had winning issues and losing ones.  And in the end, President Obama likely walked out with a little more than expected.  For me, that’s an accomplishment.

Obama’s Town Hall in Shanghai – Reading Between the Lines

By , November 18, 2009

Chinese Students applaud after President Obama's Town Hall in Shanghai on Monday

Chinese Students applaud after President Obama's Town Hall in Shanghai on Monday

Originally Posted on the Huffington Post.

Beijing, China – With scripted questions from the audience and a speech lacking particulars, President Barack Obama’s Shanghai town hall on Monday likely looked like a flop to the American audience. At the very least, it was a far cry from the free-wheeling town halls during Obama’s primaries and general election battles.

But this is not Iowa or Virginia. This is China, where the concept of the people questioning their leaders, holding them accountable or even talking directly to them is so foreign that there isn’t even a word for it. Monday’s event was translated as “mian dui mian” or face-to-face, which seems more apt for a talk show than a discussion with a world leader.

The very fact that President Obama was able to host a town hall in China should be viewed as a huge accomplishment. But more than anything, the town hall should be seen as a coming attraction of the new Administration’s China policy and China’s likely response. Below are some important takeaways from President Obama’s Shanghai town hall.

Takeaway #1 – Hosting a Town Hall in China is, In and of Itself, a Success
Town halls just do not happen in China. In an authoritarian state, there is little need for the leadership to answer directly to the people. This is not to say, however, that China’s top officials are completely immune from the citizenry’s complaints. The fact that, after extensive uproar in online chatrooms, the Chinese government lifted its requirement to install the spyware software Green Dam on every computer, shows that it sometimes does respond to public demands, albeit in a rather circuitous way. But direct accountability or accessibility is not common.

But while the Chinese leadership would prefer to keep it this way, it is questionable if the Chinese people will continue to agree with this approach. Premier Wen Jiabao’s (pronounced When Geeah-bao) popularity among the Chinese people is unparalleled precisely because he has been more accessible and accountable (In January 2008, Premier Wen, after a fluke snowstorm in the south shut down the railroads, went to various train stations to apologize to the millions of people stranded during the Chinese new year festival).

Thus at such a critical juncture, President Obama’s town hall provides the Chinese people with a look at an alternative form of leadership. What’s more, President Obama chose to speak to the young and educated, the segment of society that likely feels the grip of the government the most and likely the most idealistic for change. It is no wonder that the Chinese side gave a tremendous amount of push back to the President’s request for a town hall, only agreeing to it a few days before the event. In a relationship where it is often just best to lead by example, a town hall with the President of the United States is perhaps the best example of accountable leadership.

Takeaway #2 – China’s Increasingly Tight Grip – Comparing the Obama & Clinton Visits
But it is questionable if the President achieved his goal of speaking to the Chinese public, showing the Chinese government’s continuing control over the people’s access to information. The Chinese government refused to

Watching the President's Shanghai Town Hall on the Internet in a Starbucks in Beijing

Watching the President's Shanghai Town Hall on the Internet in a Starbucks in Beijing

broadcast the event on the government run China Central Television (CCTV), and then reneged last minute on broadcasting it live on the Xinhua News Agency’s website (the Beijing morning papers on Monday all reported that the event would be broadcast late that morning live on Xinhua’s website). Even clips of the town hall have not been shown on Chinese evening news. Ultimately, the event could only be watched through the White House’s website, giving only those Chinese people who know there is a White House website access to the event (Youtube is a blocked site in China).

In 1998, when President Bill Clinton visited Beijing, his speech to the students of Peking University received top billing from the Chinese government. The state-run media discussed his Peking University appearance for days prior and the speech was broadcast live on CCTV as well as on radio. Additionally, President Clinton appeared on a radio show in Shanghai to answer questions directly from call-ins.

So why the change? Is it that the Chinese government fears Barack Obama’s popularity more than Bill Clinton’s? Maybe, but not likely. President Clinton was very popular in China during his presidency and remains extremely popular today. In some ways, President Clinton’s speech at Peking University focused more directly on the need for greater human rights in China than even President Obama’s recent town hall.

Bill Clinton's State Visit to China, June 1998

Bill Clinton's State Visit to China, June 1998

The change has more to do with the Chinese government’s increasing ambivalence toward moving forward on the fronts of access to information, development of a civil society and greater political freedom for its people. By now, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) must realize that greater independence for its people means less control for them; the CCP remains afraid to give up this control and not just for selfish reasons. For the past 30 years, this control has enabled the Chinese government to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, better the lives of a billion people and in record-breaking time become an economic power horse. Its formula has worked, there is no doubting that. But as its growth plateaus, which it inevitably will, as the gap between rich and poor continue to grow, and as certain segments of society press for greater freedoms, whether the CCP can continue with the current ruling philosophy of control remains to be seen.

Takeaway #3 – Obama’s Human Rights Agenda – It’s There but It’s Not What You Think
This brings us to the third and final takeaway from President Obama’s town hall – where the Administration stands on human rights in China and what the U.S. should being doing to promote these rights.

Obama discussed another great wall on Monday - China's internet firewallIn terms of human rights, President Obama discussed the source of America’s core values, the positive results of such core values to the American experience, and stated that he believed some of these values are universal. However, his focus on the American context of these values belied their universal nature. Many of the values President Obama listed, such as freedom of religion and of expression, are protected by the Chinese Constitution; the difference lies in each countries’ restrictions. President Obama likely could have made a stronger case for these principles’ universalities by pointing to the fact that China itself has stated its commitment to these values, but still has a ways to go to get there. In his speech in 1998, President Clinton did an excellent job of citing to the revered Chinese political philosopher Hu Shi (pronounced Who Shi) in his call for greater democratic freedom.

But in terms of specifics, President Obama went for a decidedly more modern human right – freedom of expression on the internet. First, some background. When the U.S. and China agreed to have a town hall, knowing that the students present at the town hall would likely be hand-selected by the government and would have scripted questions, the U.S. side requested that questions be submitted via the internet. The Chinese side agreed and Xinhua News Agency opened its website to questions for President Obama. However, internet chat rooms are often no less scripted in China, especially for politically-sensitive matters. The CCP hires a large number of people to police these chat rooms and steer the discussion in a direction more agreeable to the CCP.

And that is where the U.S. found itself when it allowed Xinhua news agency to organize the internet questions, a discussion of soft-ball questions like what was it like to win the Noble Peace Prize. As a result, the U.S. Embassy began its own webpage, encouraging Chinese people to send in their questions to their unregulated site. The vast majority of these questions pertained to the Chinese government’s censorship of the internet, blocking out politically sensitive information and shutting down social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook (this is not surprising since the Chinese people who knew to access the U.S. Embassy website are the most internet-savvy and thus likely the most frustrated with the Chinese government’s control.). Ambassador Huntsman’s question about President Obama’s stance on internet censorship came from the U.S. Embassy’s website.

President Obama’s response to the question, while veiled, was shockingly strong. In no uncertain terms, he expressed the belief that a free internet has made America a strong country, made him a better leader, and allows the people to hold their leaders accountable, thus implying that a censored internet has the opposite effect. The implication was likely not lost on the Chinese students.

It appears that the Obama Administration’s human rights agenda for China will focus around internet censorship. The Chinese government has spent a tremendous amount of time and resources in controlling the internet, and has largely been successful at stamping out content it deems objectionable, so it likely did not take too kindly to President Obama’s answer. But will this be enough to help China live up to many of its ideals? Can the internet solely replace the need for a functioning civil society, another area that the Chinese government is clamping down on? Or will it just be a place to shop like it is in many other countries? This remains to be seen. I for one would have very much liked it if President Obama, in answering the question about the path to being a Nobel Peace Prize winner, mentioned his role as a public interest attorney and acknowledged the importance of public interest law to a secure and functioning society. I only hope that this was mentioned at the very least behind closed doors in his meetings with President Hu.

Transcript of President Obama’s Town Hall Meeting in Shanghai

By , November 16, 2009

THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the Press Secretary

_________________________________________________________________

For Immediate Release                        November 16, 2009

REMARKS BY PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA

AT TOWN HALL MEETING WITH FUTURE CHINESE LEADERS

Museum of Science and Technology

Shanghai, China

1:18 P.M. CST

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Good afternoonn.  It is a great honor for me to be here in Shanghai, and to have this opportunity to speak with all of you.  I’d like to thank Fudan University’s President Yang for his hospitality and his gracious welcome.  I’d also like to thank our outstanding Ambassador, Jon Huntsman, who exemplifies the deep ties and respect between our nations.  I don’t know what he said, but I hope it was good.  (Laughter.)

What I’d like to do is to make some opening comments, and then what I’m really looking forward to doing is taking questions, not only from students who are in the audience, but also we’ve received questions online, which will be asked by some of the students who are here in the audience, as well as by Ambassador Huntsman.  And I am very sorry that my Chinese is not as good as your English, but I am looking forward to this chance to have a dialogue.

This is my first time traveling to China, and I’m excited to see this majestic country.  Here, in Shanghai, we see the growth that has caught the attention of the world — the soaring skyscrapers, the bustling streets and entrepreneurial activity.  And just as I’m impressed by these signs of China’s journey to the 21st century, I’m eager to see those ancient places that speak to us from China’s distant past.  Tomorrow and the next day I hope to have a chance when I’m in Beijing to see the majesty of the Forbidden City and the wonder of the Great Wall.  Truly, this is a nation that encompasses both a rich history and a belief in the promise of the future.

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