“I’m a big supporter of non-censorship.”

This phrase, more than any other, personifies the disappointment that I’ve been reading online, and hearing in-person, from Chinese friends who watched the Obama Town Hall in Shanghai. It’s an awkward phrase, many miles from “I oppose censorship,” and really uncharacteristic of a President celebrated for his eloquence and his ability to inspire. It’s an overly calculated phrase, just as his performance at the Town Hall, was overly calculated to avoid offending his hosts in Beijing, rather than appeal to (the admittedly small number of) Chinese who might have been interested and inspired by this President (definitely not the same thing).

I don’t think it’s much defense, either, to claim that Obama’s hands were tied by the softball questions lobbed his way. Like any successful US candidate familiar with the town hall format, Obama was and is adept at answering the questions that he wishes were asked of him – not the ones that actually are. But, astonishingly, he never once veered from answering the questions put to him, never once – outside of his speech – suggested that there was anything pressing that he wanted to say to the assembled students, the online audience, the television audience. This is particularly startling considering that Obama’s advance team – by all accounts – fought long and hard to broadcast the forum to a national audience. But for what purpose? What on Earth did he want to say that required weeks of negotiations? That he’s “a big supporter of non-censorship?”

It pains me to write this (I’m an Obama voter and donor), but Obama’s performance this afternoon reminded me of nothing so much as an overly coached American businessman on his first trip to China, so concerned about what he should or should not say that he forgets what he wanted to say in the first place, and ends up going home with nothing but a hotel bill and empty promises.

Generally, the foreign media that covered the event seems to have come to a much more charitable interpretation, with the LA Times going so far as to suggest that Obama “chided” China on human rights. I’m not sure what Town Hall they watched; it wasn’t the one that my local friends and colleagues are shaking their heads at.

[UPDATED 11/19: I concede being a bit late getting to this, but here goes. My friend Jim Fallows disagrees with my assessment of the town hall, and points to the preceding speech – and the transcript of the meeting – to suggest “that he said just about as much on censorship and liberties as a visiting dignitary could say, in the circumstances.” I’ll agree to a point. The speech, I thought, was an excellent and eloquent statement of American principles delivered in the forceful tone that we’ve all come to expect from Obama. I was impressed by it on Monday, and I’m impressed, again, when I read the transcript. But here’s where I part ways from Fallows. But if you put down the transcript, and turn to the actual video of the event, the confident Obama of the speech gives way to a tentative, carefully parsed President who seems more concerned with choosing his words carefully, than impressing anything upon the students who came to see him. In a sense, we have a reverse “Nixon-Kennedy.” In that famous case, folks who listened on the radio believed that the articulate Nixon bested Kennedy; but those who watched on television favored the handsome Kennedy over the sweaty Nixon. Well, based upon Fallows post, and other discussions, I think the transcript comes off much better than the actual appearance. I’ve taken some heat for comparing Obama in the Town Hall to “an overly coached businessman.” But I can tell you, among those who watched the actual performance (in person or on television) there were similar impressions. For example, this blog compares it to “a highly hyped English corner” – again, playing off the careful, un-confident Obama that none of us expected.]

17 comments

  1. My Internet connection is too slow. So I couldn’t watch the live broadcast, and can only follow Chinese netizens’ comments on Twitter. I would say that your post here very much sums up the general opinion of those who were there or had been watching the live broadcast.

    About the LA Time’s report, shall we say that they are reporting what they want to hear rather than what has actually been said.

  2. I agree with you. Just yesterday, I was pondering why President Obama has said absolutely nothing to support those fighting against the regime in Iran. He is being too cautious.

  3. The Chinese commentators immediately after the live broadcast in Shanghai remarked with gratification that Obama noted American values were not appropriate to every country.
    Obama’s discourse on censorship emphasized by US media reports online passed unnoticed by their media counterparts here in Shanghai. All in all most disappointing. Obama is being much too cautious and, ill-advisedly, too damned subtle.

  4. I haven’t seen the video, but I am a bit more optimistic than you. I think it is a matter of expectations: I didn’t really expect Obama to say anything groundbreaking in his first appearance in China, particularly in an “informal” meeting like that. It would have been like shooting in the back of Hu.

    Besides, although the way he phrased it sounds very neutral, it is always better than saying nothing. Plus we have to take into account that he forced the question into the room (by reading an “emailed question”) which otherwise would not have been asked.

  5. I beleive our values written in our U.S. constitution are the values that have blessed our nation to be the greatest in this world.To say they would not be applicable to any other country is not an appropiate statement!

  6. I understand the disappointment but I think that the approach was to focus on saying what he is in favour of, rather than opposed to, and making positive statements rather than criticism. By talking about openness and why it is a good thing I think he came across as respectful to the audience, although it may sound somewhat less forceful or emphatic. But yes, the phrase is awkward and perhaps he could still have focused on the positive aspects of openness after stating first that he opposed censorship.

  7. I understand your disappointment and am also an Obama voter. However, as a student of business and government I suggest that Obama was doing exactly what he needed to do given the financial ties that bind the two nations. If one wanted to take the idealistic position that Obama should categorically oppose the way China runs its country then the United States should not place itself in the position of needeing to borrow money from a documented poltical ‘competitor’. Globalization has introduced a new playing field but some traditional rules still apply. The one I’m thinking of is “money talks and bullshit” walks (pardon the language). A more interesting scenario is what we are currently witnessing; China replacing the United States as the biggest consumer and the United States replacing China as savers. Extreme thinking? Not so much; in my opinion. Therefore, Obama’s actions are strategically and tactically proactive on behalf of the United States current financial weakness. In other words, China is talking and Obama is not about to BS the bank paying many of the bills.

  8. This was a good summary of what went on in China the other day. We can debate these issues pro and con, until H freezes over and it will maybe, but in the meantime, the world should know that a Chinese-style Gorbachev is at this very moment rising in the power structure in Beijing and he will soon take over as leader of the communist dictatorship and then gently transform it, as Gorby did in the old USSR, into an open, democtratic, colorful, chaotic and free, yes, free, China. When? Soon. Ten years. 15 years. 25 years. Maybe sooner. The Chinese Gorby has already been identified, his name and photo is on my blog,, and everyone in China knows who he is. He cannot act yet. He will. And when he does, a new China will arise, still proud and nationalistic, but free and democratic. It’s in the cards. Communism there is on its death bed. Await the new Chinese Gorby. He is already making inroads. By 2025, a new China will be on new terms with the rest of the world. How do I know all this? Crystal ball in Taiwan. I can see all from here. Stay tuned.

  9. I too was disappointed in Obama’s indirect criticism of China’s censorship.

    But overall, I feel his tone and content were essentially appropriate. The US is well known in China for its insistence on free speech. By consistently bringing up the benefits to the US approach, he made his point politely. Everyone in that room — and across the world — know why 100,000 Chinese are studying in the US. The facts speak for themselves.

    Imagine Hu Jintao in the US at a similar meeting, haranguing Americans on how US-style capitalism and unrestricted greed led to the financial crisis, how Americans’ inability to save has weakened their nation, and how China’s mixed economy with a strong state-run component grew 8% over the last quarter.

    Americans would find him arrogant and tiresome…even though he would be speaking the truth.

    I am happy to see Obama reaching out to leaders and societies worldwide, from Iran to Myanmar and China. The time when Americans could dominate by economic and military might is over; we need to learn from countries like China and its (non-interventionist) approach in Africa, and diplomacy-wise, from the British.

  10. I can understand your feeling of disappointment (and I must say that I’m slightly disappointed as well), but I think it very well may be that Obama’s nuanced and caveated speaking style reflected his true feelings, and this is how he would talk even if he weren’t constrained by the duty of pleasing his hosts (who have him by the wallet).

    I could be 100% wrong, but it seems to me that while Obama is willing to make an intellectual argument for the role of a free press in society, for its own sake, and for the fact that as an American president he has to do so, but it’s not something he seems to have a gut-level core conviction about (like Bush), and I doubt whether he thinks the US should even push other countries as far as human rights. In other words, it seems like he’s willing to make the case for these things as a means to convince others to do it for themselves (ie. professor Obama), but he’s not willing, as President, to push for greater human rights in China as a core interest of the United States.

  11. What is Obama leaving with? He gets a brief section on Chinese news, largely ignoring even the feeble content he did have and offset by bigger sections (at least in Beijing) on his declining popularity at home. He gets Liu Minkang railing against low rates setting off a destabilising carry trade (imagine Ben Bernanke coming out with a similar tirade the day before Hu jintao turned up). The whole trip has been an opportunity for the Chinese to indulge in gloating over the US, with little being given, at least so far, in return. What god awful diplomacy. As an Obama supporter I’m deeply disappointed.

  12. Not sure what Shirley (above) is trying to say but I was satisfied with Obamas indirect but understandable (by any Chinese person used to reading between lines) comments about ethnic minorities (Tibet, Uighurs) and universal rights of freedom of expression and religion. Funny that Chinese censors immediately started scrubbing online forums of comments he made against censorship.

  13. NOW HEAR THIS: in the last few hours there have been several racist comments left here, spoiling what has been a really intelligent discussion. In the nearly three years that this blog has been in existence, I’ve deleted comments only when they included personal attacks, racist comments, or potentially libelous material. Thankfully, discussion on this blog has typically been high-minded and the number of times that I’ve deleted comments is still in the single digits. So, consider yourself warned: in the future, if you leave a racist comments, I will not only delete it, I will leave a new comment in its place that includes your IP address and – if possible – the institution it belongs to.

  14. what is the problem?you are disappointed then get into his shoes and do the right thing you feel is good for only you,dio

  15. I listened to you on Minnesota Public Radio, it sounded good! I had seen pictures of the ObaMao shirts, and hope I can manage to pick one up at some point. I wish you would have mentioned Obama’s call to open China’s internet connections and how they censored THAT! As an expat in China, the Great FireWall is killing me! Just makes things a pain. Also they way the host pronounced “Shanghai” was hurting my ears, but that’s beside the point.

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