Page last updated at 07:32 GMT, Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Obama's message censored in China

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Picture of the front page of China Daily
Chinese newspapers emphasised the US president's positive comments

China has tried to neutralise US President Barack Obama's attempt to speak directly to ordinary Chinese people.

Officials have used their control of the media to make sure citizens receive only a censored version of the US president's comments.

In a question-and-answer session on Monday in Shanghai, Mr Obama praised China and urged it to adopt certain universal rights and freedoms.

But in news reports about the session, Chinese media outlets largely ignored the criticism and played up the positive comments.

Climate change

Mr Obama did get the opportunity to speak directly to China's 1.3bn people at a press event held with Chinese President Hu Jintao on Tuesday. The event was broadcast live on national television.

But even here, China tried to avoid any mishaps.

Journalists at the event were expecting to be able to ask questions, but they did not get the chance - the two presidents quickly departed after each making statements.

Mr Obama's success in his own country is largely based on his ability to present his charismatic personality to ordinary people through an unfettered media.

But in China the Communist Party stands in his way. It regularly censors the country's media and a presidential visit is no different.

The US government had wanted the Shanghai question-and-answer session broadcast as widely as possible - but it was shown live only on local TV.

In an article about the event, China's state-run news agency, Xinhua, said Mr Obama was "upbeat" about Sino-US ties.

The report noted that the US president's talk to students on Monday covered a wide range of topics, including cultural exchanges and climate change.

But it did not say that Mr Obama had urged China's leaders to welcome the free flow of information - particularly on the internet.

A similar upbeat note was struck by the state-run China Daily. "There's room for both of us," it quoted Mr Obama as saying in a front-page headline.

A worker hoists Chinese and US flags on Tiananmen Square, 16 November
President Obama says China and the United States need to work together

Television news bulletin were sometimes even more circumspect with their reporting of Mr Obama's first full day in China.

The main national television news show on Monday evening hardly mentioned the visit by Mr Obama to China.

It was the seventh item on the 1900 programme - coming after a long report on the funeral of a former vice-premier who has long since slipped from memory, and an item on a Chinese writing museum.

The short report on Mr Obama was not broadcast until 20 minutes into the bulletin and lasted just a minute. It did not show the US president meeting with Chinese students in Shanghai.

But some media outlets did go further than others - the Beijing News was one.

It reported Mr Obama's comments on the benefits of allowing people to communicate freely using the internet.

Free access to the internet "allows people from across the world to ensure their own governments are responsible" it told its readers.

Internet chat rooms had even more leeway to comment on Mr Obama's question-and-answer session with the handpicked students.

"His words were like shaking hands with a guest, but what matters is our national interest," said one internet user.

"We have to bear in mind that while we're shaking one nice hand, we should be prepared for the other hand - which might hit us."

Another internet user complained about Mr Obama's comments on individual rights and freedoms being "universal". "American presidents are hypocrites," he said.

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