President Obama spent part of his last morning in Beijing giving an interview to Southern Weekly, a newspaper in Guangdong Province sometimes known for its push-the-envelope approach to the government’s ever-present censorship.
But if the White House expected a hard-hitting article that showcased the United States’ commitment to press freedom, it must have been disappointed when the newspaper hit the stands on Thursday.
Mr. Obama was quoted talking about basketball. His other comments — about trade, bilateral relations and China’s rise — added virtually nothing to what he had previously said on his three-day visit.
Yet, as they did throughout the president’s visit, the government authorities appeared to monitor carefully how his words were transmitted to China’s public. They were especially vigilant about Southern Weekly’s report, by some accounts, because Mr. Obama had turned down an interview request from CCTV, China’s main national television network.
Mr. Obama’s advance team may have selected Southern Weekly for the interview because it has had a reputation for occasionally tackling subjects other state-run media outlets decline to examine. If so, American officials got a taste of the limits of media diversity in the country.
Southern Weekly’s publication was held up late into the night, said one of its journalists, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. The page that contained the interview was missing from the edition delivered to Western news outlets in Beijing.
An employee of Southern Weekly’s reader services department said the Obama article delayed several pages in the front section past the deadline for Beijing delivery. But there were scattered reports that the paper was not able to deliver even to newsstands in its hometown, Guangzhou, the provincial capital.
The weekly’s Web site did not display the interview with any prominence, and primary Internet portals were ordered to ignore it, Chinese journalists said. “It is not like whatever Obama says is news,” said Yu Wei, a top editor of the portal Sohu.com.
Michael Anti, a Chinese blogger and an advocate of greater press freedom who once worked as a researcher for The New York Times in Beijing, said the White House should not have expected anything different. “This result is no surprise to us,” he said in a telephone interview. “Maybe Obama didn’t understand that all the high officials of the so-called free media are appointed by the party.”
Zhang Zhe, a reporter who attended the 12-minute interview on Wednesday, declined to answer questions about whether government censors were involved in either formulating questions for Mr. Obama or reviewing the paper.
The weekly’s editor in chief, Xiang Xi, said he was too busy to answer questions. In an interview with China Business News, however, Mr. Xiang did not quite present himself as an independent journalist. “Since Obama chose us, Southern Weekly must represent Chinese national interests,” he told the newspaper, which is based in Shanghai.
Propaganda officials in the past few years have sought to install more loyal editors at Southern Weekly and have warned Internet news portals not to pick up politically sensitive stories if the newspaper publishes them.
Moreover, this week showed that the Chinese authorities were determined to oversee the shaping of Mr. Obama’s public image here. They rejected a White House request to nationally broadcast Mr. Obama’s town-hall-style meeting on Monday in Shanghai, and carefully screened and coached questioners. One student said that she and other participants underwent four days of “training” beforehand and that they were ordered not to ask about Tibet. Mr. Obama’s news conference with President Hu Jintao on Tuesday was broadcast nationwide, but no questions were allowed.
Mr. Anti said that Southern Weekly seemed to have forfeited the chance for a less sanitized encounter. In the first three questions, Mr. Obama was asked how he felt about his first visit to China, whether he still had time to play basketball and how he saw China-United States cooperation in the region. “They just talked about nothing,” Mr. Anti said. “Just empty talk.”
Mr. Xiang, the weekly’s editor, portrayed it differently to the Shanghai newspaper.
“Obama didn’t avoid any questions or hedge in a politician’s tone,” he said. “Of course, we didn’t hold back; we asked all the questions that should be asked.”