Obama does China town hall, webcast

Talk streamed on Internet but kept off television

BEIJING -- U.S. President Barack Obama extolled the merits of an uncensored Internet to about 500 Chinese university students gathered in a "town hall" meeting in Shanghai on Monday, the first day of a three-day visit to China.

More than 340 million Chinese -- the world's largest online population -- surf the Internet under the watch of an estimated 30,000 censors who expunge Web sites of views that run counter the government's stance on issues such as minority affairs, religion, homosexuality and corruption.

While Obama acknowledged a downside to technologies when they fall into the hands of terrorists or extremists, he told the audience at the Shanghai Science & Technology Museum that the benefits of a free flow of information outweighed the negatives, calling unrestricted Internet access a "source of strength."

Obama said that the free flow of information in the U.S. "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."

Obama told the Chinese students that one of the reasons he was able to win the 2008 election was by mobilizing "young people like yourselves to get involved through the Internet."

Obama said he was pleased to be taking questions submitted via e-mail from Chinese netizens. Questions and answers touched on freedom of expression, women's rights, America's support of a "One China" policy and the responsibility of both countries to fight climate change.

Chinese authorities refused the White House request to broadcast the unscripted session live on China Central Television, the nationwide state network that reaches nearly all of China's 1.3 billion people.

By contrast, CCTV broadcast live George W. Bush's meeting with students at Tsinghua University in Beijing in 2002, and Bill Clinton's speech and Q&A at Beijing University in 1998.

CCTV has refused Obama a platform before. Its broadcast of his inaugural address in January was cut abruptly when Obama praised those who "faced down fascism and communism" in the past. Also denied CCTV viewers was Obama's warning in that speech that "those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent know that you are on the wrong side of history."

The Obama town hall in Shanghai was almost canceled completely, but the U.S. and China reached a compromise Sunday that saw the meeting broadcast instead on the Web site of the official Xinhua News Agency and on local television in Shanghai, China's biggest and wealthiest city.

The White House Web site, which is not usually blocked in China, streamed the event live with a simultaneous Chinese translation. It was not censored but was not easy to access in Beijing from a regular high-speed Internet connection. The picture and audio frequently were choppy. When accessed using a proxy server in Hong Kong the transmission was smooth.

China's government frequently jams foreign news Web sites temporarily and entirely blocks access to Facebook, Twitter and many other social networking sites in China it claims carry extremist political information.

Obama's meeting with students in Shanghai is the only public interaction scheduled for the three-day visit. Monday night, Obama arrived in the capital, Beijing, where he will have talks with president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao on Tuesday.

Separately on Monday, U.S. trade representative ambassador Ron Kirk and commerce secretary Gary Locke met in Beijing with the American Chamber of Commerce in China to discuss, among other issues, improving intellectual property rights enforcement in China.

Their discussion comes on the heels of the late October U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade in Hangzhou, where China agreed to clamp down on the rampant Internet piracy that undermines the makers of filmed entertainment from around the world.