Something got lost in transit in US President Barack Obama’s visit to China — the charismatic rhetoric and dominance of mass communication that took him from nowhere to the White House.
Obama built his political persona with soaring speeches on a grand stage and by reaching out to a vast grassroots network on the Internet.
But in China, Obama’s hosts successfully stifled those prodigious public talents, keeping his message from the people with media censorship and smothering it in staid diplo-speak.
On previous foreign trips in his taxing first year in office, the president sent inspiring words winging to millions of satellite dishes in the Muslim world and sparked Obama mania in Europe.
But in China, it has been tougher to reach out to ordinary citizens. His best attempt, a town hall meeting streamed on the White House website, suffered from what was largely a nationwide media blackout.
And Obama’s talks on Tuesday with President Hu Jintao were followed by a dull public appearance, with both leaders reading out statements to the media stuffed with diplomatic code words.
The US president shuffled his papers on the lectern, scratched an eyebrow and looked across at Hu, as his host read out a long speech. The arid diplomatic translations made the occasion seem even more sterile.
Chinese officials several times warned the hundreds of reporters present, whom they referred to as “dear friends,” that questions were banned. There was no chance for Obama to deploy his persuasive political personality.
Clearly, the raucous political dialogue seen in American elections and politics is alien to communist-ruled China where sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are heavily censored.
But it seems Obama is ready to play a “long game” on China policy, and is willing to take domestic media hits over a lack of progress now, in the hope of results later on.
Equally, the White House did not expect opportunities for Obama’s populist politics offered elsewhere in the world, or that the US president could transform the political environment alone.
“I did not expect, I can speak authoritatively for the president on this, that we thought the waters would part and everything would change over the course of our two-and-a-half-day trip to China,” said Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs.
Obama aides report that while his public persona may be out of view, the first-year president has emerged as a forceful negotiator with Chinese leaders, and is firing off questions about life here.
US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman said Obama was “extremely effective” in private and a strong advocate for the country as a president “who talks about our traditions and is able to explain it to all those who are listening.”
White House aides prefer not to dwell on the differences, and instead talk about how he is developing a relationship with China that will be invaluable for working on the world’s most pressing problems.
Obama used his town hall meeting in Shanghai to issue a call for the unshackling of the Internet.
But Chinese authorities appeared to make attempts to stack the audience with students willing to follow the government line.
At least two of the four youths Obama picked to ask their own questions were later identified as Communist Youth League members.
The event did air on local television, but appears not to have had national exposure. Hopes that the official Xinhua news agency would stream it live did not materialize.
The state mouthpiece instead posted a running transcript of the meeting, erecting a barrier between Obama’s personality and everyday Chinese.
Several Chinese bloggers praised Obama’s efforts, and said his call to pull down the “Great Firewall of China” would provide valuable ammunition for Chinese web users.
“Obama’s answer… is very interesting, because he is the first president who talks about this, and it will move and urge the Chinese government to think,” said one blogger, known as Beifeng.
Another blogger, Zuola, also welcomed Obama’s intervention — which was sparked by a question submitted by email read out by Huntsman.
But he said the town hall meeting was simply a “game” played out under strict Chinese supervision.
“The Chinese government surely does not like those who are not in their control,” he said.
Obama’s trip to Shanghai only got covered in passing on the main evening news on state-run nationwide broadcaster CCTV on Monday, which devoted most of its time to Hu’s trip to the Asia-Pacific summit.
The town hall meeting was not mentioned at all. — AFP