China stifles Obama charisma

by Stephen Collinson

BEIJING (AFP) – 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.

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