President Barack Obama has asked China to stop censoring internet access.
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.
’’Government should reflect the will of the people’’ ... Barack Obama greets his audience before a speech in Shanghai that few Chinese would be able to hear or see. Photo: AFP
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.
''That all men and women are created equal and possess certain fundamental rights,'' he said. ''That government should reflect the will of the people and respond to their wishes. That commerce should be open, information freely accessible and that laws, not simply men, should guarantee the administration of justice.''
Mr Obama did not explicitly criticise China. He acknowledged America's shortfalls and went out of his way to welcome China into a role of global leadership. He even ducked the only edgy question - from his ambassador, Jon Huntsman - about the great ''firewall'' of China.
The lengths that the Chinese Government went to to prevent its people from connecting directly with Mr Obama is a measure of how far the state has tightened its grip on society recently, as well as the respect that censors have for Mr Obama's capacity to sell a message.
China Central Television broadcast similar town hall-style dialogues with former presidents Bill Clinton in 1998 and George Bush in 2002.
The Global Times, an influential Government-controlled tabloid, appeared to set out what Beijing hoped to demonstrate with Mr Obama's visit.
''Analysts have generally noticed that in recent years the influence of American values on China has reached its weakest point, and will continue to weaken,'' said yesterday's front page story.
Last night Mr Obama flew to Beijing to dine with President Hu Jintao, who he will meet again today, before giving what a White House spokesman billed as a ''joint press conference'' but is more likely to be a statement from each leader without questions.
Several sources say the visit has been an education for Mr Obama's staff, who have tried to avoid conflict with China and were ''shocked'' at how tightly Beijing has controlled the fine details of every engagement.