Politely but firmly pressing for greater freedoms on China’s own turf, President Barack Obama spoke against censorship on Monday, saying tough criticisms of political leaders should be allowed and the free flow of information on the Internet “should be encouraged.”
Opening his first-ever visit to China, a critically important US partner on economic and security matters, Obama said crucial problems cannot be solved unless the world’s only superpower and its rising competitor work together. “More is gained when great powers cooperate than when they collide,” he said.
But on a visit that had him wading into sensitive territory with his tightly controlled host country, Obama also openly prodded Beijing to accept what he called “universal rights.”
“We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation,” Obama said at a town hall with Chinese university students, believed to be the most extensive such forum held by a US president on Chinese soil.
But, he said, such things as freedom of expression and worship, unfettered access to information and unrestricted political participation “should be available to all people, including ethnic and religious minorities, whether they are in the US, China or any nation.”
He took eight questions, half from audience members and half from among the hundreds submitted over the Internet, in a session that the White House negotiated with the Chinese government up to the last minute.
Obama spoke at the most length, and in the most animated terms near the end, when answering a question about China’s firewall that blocks access to many Internet sites. “I’m a big supporter of non-censorship,” Obama said. “I recognise that different countries have different traditions. I can tell you that in the United States, the fact that we have free Internet — or unrestricted Internet access is a source of strength, and I think should be encouraged.”
Given where Obama was speaking, such a comment was pointed. And he appeared to be talking directly to China’s leaders when he said that he believes free discussion, including criticism that may be annoying to him, makes him “a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don’t want to hear.”
China has 338 million Internet users and employs some of the world’s tightest controls over what they see.