Late yesterday -- after I had recorded my On The Media complaints about mainstream coverage of Barack Obama's trip to Asia, but before I had seen Howard French's and Tish Durkin's similar complaints -- I got a call from a government official who had been on the trip. This person -- for convenience, I'll say "she" rather than "he or she" from here on -- wasn't aware that I'd already weighed in about the coverage, and was calling to say that I, as person who'd recently been living in China, might be interested in how different the events seemed to her from what she'd seen in the U.S. press.
She agreed to have her views conveyed "on background," which I'll do here and in a few more installments over the next two or three days. Obviously these are the views of an interested party, who was involved in planning the trip and believes it should be seen as a success. But compare them with what you read and heard about the trip last week -- including about the "failure" of the Town Meeting in Shanghai.
About coverage of the trip in general:
"I don't care if someone criticizes us, I just would like it to be accurate and in context. I fear I am learning that is not the skill of some in the White House Press corps. They are experts on horse races, and so that is the way everything is cast."
About what the Administration hoped for from the trip:
"In thinking about the trip, the things we were trying to accomplish were all basically long term things. We were not looking for 'deliverables' or one-day stories. You've now got eight or nine countries among the G20 that are Asia-Pacific countries. The historic shift of power and influence from West to East is reflected in that number.
"Obama is very focused on global issues, things like climate change, financial imbalances, non proliferation, energy issues. We saw all the countries on this trip as players on those global issues. Of course China is important in particular, but also Korea and Japan and the ASEAN countries. So we saw this as a way of developing relationships that would be helpful to us as we tackled these issues coming down the road.
"We've got Copenhagen [climate talk] coming up in mid-December. We have Iran heading increasingly likely toward Plan B rather than Plan A, pressure rather than inducements. North Korea. And the Copenhagen session is very far from a done deal. The countries we dealt with are all key players here. And on the economic side, you've got the whole issue of rebalancing the global agenda. None of those is something where you come out of a meeting and say Eureka. They're all part of a long process and a long game.
"The other thing we had in mind, which has to do with the whole "rising China" phenomenon: we wanted to solidify the relationship with China. To show them that we're not going to have a fluctuating policy. That we know what we're doing, and understand that we are dealing from a position of strength. And at the same time, to all our traditional allies [Japan, Korea, etc], we wanted to reinforce their sense of comfort that our relationship with China won't be at their expense."
About the Town Hall meeting in Shanghai: Why was it "censored" rather than streamed to anyone who wanted to see it in China?
"We negotiated endlessly against a very difficult Chinese government on the issue. Their intransigence tells me several things. It was the day before the meeting with Hu Jintao, and there were uneasy about what might be said in a live format. ["Surprise" = "unacceptable risk" in many official Chinese dealings.] This was also a townhall format of a type they had never had before. [What about Bill Clinton's? That was a roundtable plus a speech, not a town hall.] We wanted to have 1000 or 1500 people. They said No. Security problems, and so on. So, we got to 500. We insisted on live streaming. Endless fights on that. Then live TV. Endless fights. And questions from the internet. Huge fights over who would pose them and who would screen. There wasn't a single aspect of the meeting that wasn't hard fought.
"It was tortured enough that we thought about pulling the plug. At the end of the day we decided to go through. The point is that on the Chinese side, this showed more than the usual anxiety. I think there was a genuine anxiety about the possible... force of Barack Obama. I would say a word short of "subversive" or "destabilizing." But something profoundly disturbing to their system of government and control. The anxiety was a tribute to the kind of inspirational force he has.
"What they actually did, was to put the live streaming part on Xinhua.net. For the opening portion, we studied very carefully Ronald Reagan's speech at Fudan in 1984. It began almost identically: Here is who we are, and these are our values. But Reagan's ended with a poem from Zhou Enlai. Can you Imagine what would have happened if Barack Obama had ended up with a poem by Zhou Enlai?
"We know there were tens of millions of hits on Xinhua.net. And more than two or three tens of millions. Some people complained that this was carried 'only' on Shanghai TV, but that reaches reaches 100 million households. Of the top 10 Chinese web sites, nine carried news and commentary. Thousands of user generated messages and blog posts. Tens of millions people in the first instance saw it, and by the time it's over the number is going to be staggering. Whenever we had a discussion about, Should we pull the plug, we thought, if there is an opportunity to talk to tens of millions of people, that is an opportunity we should take. People can draw their conclusions about China and America from the event."
More to come tomorrow.
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