So to a member of the traveling press pool, viewing the session mainly as a campaign stop whose advance work went either well or poorly, this looked like a bust. Here is how it looked to a foreigner who has just written me -- a person who has lived in China for two decades, still does business there, and speaks Mandarin:
"In your series, you touched on the Shanghai town hall, quoting from President Obama's opening and his response to the Twitter/Great Firewall question, and gave voice to a White House insider as to the power of his words and their likely reach inside China. There's been some buzz among western journalists about how the town hall "reached no one".
"I've been monitoring the China internet in the wake of the town hall and, based on my observations of these things over the years I'm very much leaning toward the White House insider's view -- that the reach was vast and deep, in the many millions or tens of millions, though not necessarily entirely positive. But the comment from President Obama that I think will have the most impact inside the firewall was not the one about US principles that you quoted in your followups. It was this one:'Now, I should tell you, I should be honest, as President of the United States, there are times where I wish information didn't flow so freely because then I wouldn't have to listen to people criticizing me all the time. I think people naturally are -- when they're in positions of power sometimes thinks, oh, how could that person say that about me, or that's irresponsible, or -- but the truth is that because in the United States information is free, and I have a lot of critics in the United States who can say all kinds of things about me, I actually think that that makes our democracy stronger and it makes me a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don't want to hear. It forces me to examine what I'm doing on a day-to-day basis to see, am I really doing the very best that I could be doing for the people of the United States.'"Wow! As a resident of China for two decades and a Mandarin-speaking China-watcher for three decades, I can say without any doubt that those words will resonate far more deeply -- and potentially more "subversively" or "destabilizingly" -- than any overt thumb-in-the-eye hectoring that any foreigner or foreign leader might muster, in public or private. Those words are ***precisely*** the kind that Zhongnanhai [Chinese term equivalent to "the Kremlin"] fears the most, and rightly so."
A reader writes:
"We were watching the Bejing dinner highlights on cable at home (CT state), via CCTV network [China Central TV, state controlled] and saw a very close friend among the group of musicians/artists performing. My wife woke me up to tivo it, then she called our friend in Shanghai (he had already returned the next early morning).
"He apparently accompanies the bigwigs when they travel and/or entertain foreign guests, etc. For instance, he was in Moscow last year when Hu saw Putin. So unlike other performers, he gets to see the leadership withforeign dignitaries on a routine basis.
"Anyway, long story short, from his local chinese perspective, it was obvious to him that the Chinese leadership were clearly enamored with Obama. They sincerely enjoyed our President's company, it was obvious from their body language of some connection with Obama. Obviously the state press wouldn't show that.....hopefully this visit established some mutual 'trust'. We'll see...."
"One of the things that struck me when I was reading one of the NYT's stories on the President's visit to China was their odd way of contrasting it to past presidential visits. As I remember, the reporter(s) writing the story as much as said that Mr. Obama had not "gotten" any concessions on this and that unlike how it used to be in the good ol' days. [WaPo story to that effect here.]
"You remember those days right? when the U.S. President could helicopter into China and come back with the RMB exactly where we want it, no more internal censorship or repression, all political prisoners freed, China ready and willing to impose sanctions on country A and help invade country B, and of course solid enforceable contract law appearing by magic all around the country, and whatever else comes up in these silly articles."
I am most certainly not saying that all the coverage was negative, nor that all the negative coverage was wrong. Nor that all of the coverage was misinformed. Pretty soon, out of fairness, I will do a compliments-list compendium of enlightening stories from the trip: one that instantly comes to mind is Jason Dean's in the WSJ about the mysterious half-censored interview Obama conducted with Southern Weekend newspaper. If, as I'm saying, we should judge the trip on its long-term results, it could turn out to be a failure when we see what China and Japan actually do over the next year on contentious issues. But my very strong impression is that the overwhelming tone of coverage was campaign-like and unnecessarily negative, and that the resulting bias is worth noting. If you haven't gotten the point yet!
Bonus update! My friend and occasional Atlantic contributor Adam Minter writes from Shanghai in partial defense of the MSM:
"I remain sympathetic to the traveling press corps and their coverage, in part because I think the White House did such a lousy job about conveying its goals for the trip during and in the immediate aftermath of the visit. Put differently, I've learned more about the administration's hopes from the mission from your post-facto interview with the un-named gov't official, than I did from any statements given to the media by the White House during the mission. Why couldn't the un-named official have briefed the press corps in the same way that you are being briefed while everyone was crossing the Pacific? Clearly, they didn't. So, to some extent, I think the blame for negative coverage - and, true, I'm sympathetic to some of it - must be laid at the feet of the White House and those responsible for getting the press corps up to speed."