China applies muzzle to Obama speech

The Sydney Morning Herald
November 17, 2009

BEIJING: Barack Obama championed the cause of open dialogue yesterday in what he had hoped to be the main public event of his first visit to China, but most of mainstream Chinese society may never know.

Chinese propaganda authorities appear to have made last-minute decisions to pull internet and satellite television coverage of what had been billed as an unscripted ”town hall-style” gathering in Shanghai.

Satellite coverage on Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV – which is accessible in southern China and in affluent residential areas – was cut after several minutes.

The website for the Chinese Government’s own Xinhua news agency initially greeted browsers with this error message: ”Access Forbidden”. The site later came online with the banner headline ”Obama’s Dialogue with China: Global Exclusive Live Broadcast.” But there was never any live broadcast to match the headline.

The White House’s own back-up plan of streaming the event on its own website was hamstrung by unusual technical problems, including that the broadcast was delayed by one minute and that the camera was mostly pointing away from Mr Obama or at his shoes.

The event was broadcast on Shanghai television, with poor sound quality and censoring of some of Mr Barack’s remarks about American values. There was no national coverage, although a diplomatic source said American officials were ”initially led to believe that the event would broadcast live”.

The students on camera, who had been hand-picked by their government-controlled universities, sat straight-faced throughout Mr Obama’s presentation, including his jokes. And none of their questions, or the Chinese Government-selected questions from the Chinese internet, touched on the main theme of the President’s opening remarks: how a commitment to principles had guided the US through the ”darkest of storms” including civil war, slavery and discrimination.

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