UPDATED: Friday, April 13, 2012 - 8:53am
BEIJING – President Barack Obama pointedly nudged China on Monday to stop censoring Internet access, offering an animated defense of the tool that helped him win the White House and suggesting Beijing need not fear a little criticism.
The president's message during a town hall-style meeting with university students in Shanghai, China's commercial hub, focused on one of the trickiest issues separating China's communist government and the United States — human rights.
It was a delicately balanced message and Obama couched his admonitions with words calling for cooperation, heavy with praise and American humility.
"I think that the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable," Obama told students during his first-ever trip to China. "They can begin to think for themselves."
The first-term U.S. president then flew to Beijing where Obama quickly drove to the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse for Obama's third meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Trade, climate change and economic issues were expected to dominate. The two leaders had dinner in the government complex and were scheduled to meet again Tuesday.
In brief remarks before their initial talks, Hu noted Obama's meeting with students, calling the session "quite lively."
Obama smiled broadly, throughout the Chinese leaders welcoming remarks, then told Hu that "the world recognizes the importance of the U.S.-Chinese relationship" in tackling global problems.
Obama's message, aside from his proddings on human rights, was clear: few global challenges can be solved unless the world's only superpower and its rising competitor work together. He and his advisers have insisted in virtually all public utterances since he arrived in Japan on Friday: "We do not seek to contain China's rise."
Talk at dinner involved the respective histories of the two countries, and both Hu and Obama outlined the economic challenges his country is confronting. The pair also swapped ideas about the significance education plays in the advancement of their people.
During Obama's opening statement to university students in Shanghai, he spoke bluntly about the benefits of individual freedoms in a country known for limiting them.
"We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation," Obama said. Then he added that freedom of expression and worship, unfettered access to information and unrestricted political participation are not unique to the United States; instead, he called them "universal rights."
The line offered echoes of Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, who often talked of the "universality of freedom." Obama talked at length about the Internet, which he said helped him win the presidency because it allowed for the mobilization of young people like those in his audience in Shanghai.
"I'm a big supporter of non-censorship," Obama said. "I recognize that different countries have different traditions. I can tell you that in the United States, the fact that we have free Internet — or unrestricted Internet access is a source of strength, and I think should be encouraged."
Given where Obama was speaking, such a comment carried strong implications. And he appeared to be talking directly to China's leaders when he said that he believes free discussion, including criticism that he sometimes finds annoying, makes him "a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don't want to hear."
China has more than 250 million Internet users and employs some of the world's tightest controls over what they see. The country is often criticized for having the so-called "Great Firewall of China," which refers to technology designed to prevent unwanted traffic from entering or leaving a network.
Obama's town hall was not broadcast live across China on television. It was shown on local Shanghai TV and streamed online on two big national Internet portals, but the quality was choppy and hard to hear.
Obama is in the midst of a weeklong Asia trip. He came with a vast agenda of security, economic and environmental concerns, although always looming was how he would deal with human rights while in China.
His China visit features the only sightseeing of his journey. He will visit the Forbidden City, home of former emperors in Beijing, and the centuries-old Great Wall outside of the city. Aides have learned that finding some tourist time calms and energize their boss amid the grueling schedule of an international trip.
U.S. ambassador Jon Huntsman called Obama's event the first ever town-hall meeting held by a U.S. president in China. Yet former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also spoke to students and took questions from them during stops in China.
China is a huge and lucrative market for American goods and services, and yet it has a giant trade surplus with the U.S. that, like a raft of other economic issues, is a bone of contention between the two governments. The two militaries have increased their contacts, but clashes still happen and the United States remains worried about a dramatic buildup in what is already the largest standing army in the world.
Amid all that, Obama has adopted a pragmatic approach that stresses the positive, sometimes earning him criticism for being too soft on Beijing — particularly in the area of human rights abuses and what the United States regards as an undervalued Chinese currency that disadvantages U.S. products.
The two nations are working together more than ever on battling global warming, but they still differ deeply over hard targets for reductions in the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause it. China has supported sterner sanctions to halt North Korea's nuclear weapons program, but it still balks at getting more aggressive about reining in Iran's uranium enrichment.
Obama recognizes that a rising China, as the world's third-largest economy — on its way to becoming the second — and the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt, has shifted the dynamic more toward one of equals. For instance, Chinese questions about how Washington spending policies will affect the already soaring U.S. deficit and the safety of Chinese investments now must be answered by Washington.
The White House hoped Monday's town hall meeting with Chinese university students would allow Obama to telegraph U.S. values — through its successes and failures — to the widest Chinese audience possible.
But those hopes had their limits in communist-ruled China.