When President Obama took the stage in Shanghai on Monday for his faux town-hall with 400 carefully selected
Communist Youth Leaguers future Chinese leaders, he had already lost the crowd. Amid reports that the town-hall participants had been held in splendid isolation in the days prior to the town-hall and subjected to special "training" for their participation, the Chinese authorities managed to wring every ounce of spontaneity out of the event. Not that it mattered much, since most Chinese were unable to watch what the White House had billed as its big attempt to reach out directly to the Chinese people because their government had helpfully blocked it online and was only carrying it on local TV in Shanghai.
While the Chinese government's countermeasures to control the event are unsurprising, the degree to which the Obama administration went along with them should be. At one point there were reports that the advance team working on the trip was fighting back against the Chinese efforts at control, but those efforts apparently stopped at some point over the weekend and the Obama team gave in to Chinese demands for a tightly controlled forum. In the end, Obama seemed uncomfortable dealing with the non-responsive crowd, which did not laugh at his jokes despite their apparent English fluency, and he seemed to be self-censoring, even in response to the "tough and straightforward" questions about how it felt to win the Nobel Peace Prize. When he did get a serious question such as on Taiwan arms sales or his knowledge of the Great Fire Wall that tightly controls access to the internet in China, he ducked and flinched. In an otherwise decent answer to the Internet censorship question, in which he praised the value of freedom of information in American society (albeit in typically self-regarding terms), he undercut his whole message by referring to the "different traditions" that Chinese internet users supposedly have. Huh?
Nevermind that his predecessors were somehow able to get the Chinese to agree to let them speak on live TV. As the White House explained in response to criticisms of Obama's lack of direct contact with the Chinese people, he really was unable to do more because of the shortness of his trip (during which he reportedly did manage some sight-seeing at the Great Wall and Forbidden City).
But you would never know there was any controversy about any of this from reading the White House website, which referred to the town-hall as "unprecedented" and "historic." Yes--I suppose it was both those things, in that it has now set a new low standard for what American presidents can expect in terms of their ability to directly address the Chinese people without the filter of China's authoritarian government. Apparently oblivious to all this, Katie Lillie, the White House Director of Press Advance told the White House Blog that: "What was so amazing to her about today's town hall in Shanghai, was the similarities it had to hundreds of events held all over the United States during the campaign." Well, that explains a lot.