Did The Chinese Watch Obama's Town Hall?

Ten days before President Obama arrived in China, the U.S. government's massive advance party was upped by one: a member of the White House New Media team began to work with the U.S. embassy and Shanghai University officials on a November 16 town hall meeting where 400 pre-selected students would participate.  The White House was under no illusion that the give-and-take would be free from the red pen of Chinese television and internet censors. The town hall was not broadcast on Chinese television.

But neither did they wish to pass up an opportunity to communicate directly with the Chinese people, a White House official said.  This was the fourth iteration of the White House new media team's global engagement. It started in March with the president's YouTube message on Norwuz.  Then came the president's town hall meeting with students in, Turkey, where the White House quietly partnered with a Turkish social media firm to promote viewing among young Turks. White House outreach for the president's speech to the Muslim world in Egypt was similarly extensive, and it included plenty of pre-speech negotiations with Arab television networks and internet sites.

The China gig was tricky, given the practicalities of Internet communication in China and the reality of a very sensitive host government.  But something seems to have worked: of about 200,000 live stream requests, 120,000 were from China. (67,000 were from the United States.)  The number of peak concurrent users suggested that there was no sudden drop-off or bottleneck, which would have suggested a concerted censorship effort by the Chinese government.

The official Xinhua site in China put out a transcript in real time. It was unfiltered at first -- and only later was it updated to remove certain sections, particularly when Ambassador John Huntsman reminded Obama of China's massive Internet firewall.

"...And so I've always been a strong supporter of open Internet use. I'm a big supporter of non-censorship. This is part of the tradition of the United States that I discussed before, and 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," Mr. Obama said.  

The White House later recieved word from its embassy that its own Chinese government sources reported that the official Xinhua transcript received more than 50,000,000 page views. (Separately, the U.S. Embassy hosted a live chat about the event. generating about 6,400 unique hits from IP addresses in China.)

The numbers aside, U.S. officials are looking at what they call the "long tail" of the town hall meeting. They hope that Chinese students and citizens share the video over peer-to-peer networks.

"Still, it is not an irony that escapes anyone that an American president gave what I consider to be a good answer on Internet freedom at an event in China and the Chinese government had a different message," an administration official said.