Obama's Shanghai Town Hall: Triumph or Flop?

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By now most of the online world has heard that President Obama doesn't use Twitter. Yet that was just one moment during the president's unusual town hall meeting with Chinese students in Shanghai. Obama's address was, as one Time reporter points out, "the first time a U.S. President had ever hosted a town hall in the Communist  Party-controlled state." And he made use of the platform, taking a dig at China's censorship policies. This made rights advocates at Amnesty International happy with the president, for once. So apart from news of Obama's digital clumsiness, was the town hall a triumph? Opinions are sharply divided, with some disappointed the president didn't go further to denounce censorhip. Here's the debate:

  • That Was It?  Journalist Adam Minter in Shanghai asks whether "I'm a big supporter of non-censorship" was the best Obama could do. The "overly calculated" wording was a far cry from saying "I oppose censorship," and "personifies," according to Minter, the way in which the president's performance was "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." The worst part: 
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?"
  • Actually, That Was Pretty Good  The Atlantic's James Fallows, who has also spent time in Shanghai, disagrees. He says he "understand[s] the pattern Minter is talking about," but points out that "in the opening remarks [Obama] made about as explicit an argument in favor of liberties and freedom of expression as one can expect in the circumstances." The "main impression," writes Fallows, "is that he did well--charming the students in the room itself, though almost any president can do that through the sheer magnetism of the office, but also talking in ways that will play well to Chinese sensibilities without saying a word that would go over wrong back home."
  • No One Watching  Both Time's Michael Scherer and NBC's Athena Jones noticed that, in the Chinese internet cafés, no one was watching the town hall, instead opting for games and e-mail. Sherer also points out that "the Obama Administration's initial hopes for widespread Chinese broadcast of the event were not, in the end, realized. Though the event was covered on Shanghai television, elsewhere in the country the broadcast networks did not carry the feed."
  • Groundbreaking  Scherer also acknowledges, however, that this "was the first time a U.S. President had ever hosted a town hall in the Communist Party–controlled state." Furthermore, while the audience was hand-picked, Chinese authorities also selected three questions submitted via the Internet, while U.S. ambassador Jon Huntsman was allowed to read an additional question from an online pool. Then, at the end, the president "stepped off the stage, just like in Iowa and New Hampshire, and began shaking hands with the starstruck crowd."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.