Shanghai Shivers; Obama Visits

Winter in Shanghai does not officially arrive until early or mid-December.  The current season, referred to as “late autumn” is typified by azure skies, a warm swollen sun and an average daily temp of about 60 degrees fahrenheit.  Often characterized as “THE best time to visit,” the late autumn season attracts hoards of Shanghai-bound tourist and travelers seeking a comfortable environment.

This, however, was not the scene early last week as a dramatic cold-front suddenly moved in and the city shivered under a gray, dripping sky, bitter winds and driving rains.  It was against this dreary backdrop and icy cold conditions that U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Shanghai.

Huangying! Huangying! 🙂

Shanghai Daily reported the morning of Barack’s arrival: “The rain is forecast to be heaviest today…In downtown areas, wind speeds in this period may be up to 61 kilometers per hour, while that of the Yangtze River mouth will be up to 74kph…”

Personally, the drastic dip in the weather hit me with a bad cold, and on this very day I was both sick and stressed by a mound of impending school work. Shivering in my apartment with a box of tissues, two unfinished presentations to prepare, an exam the next day, a 3,000 word paper to edit and some Chinese green tea…I huddled under the covers to tune-in via laptop to the exciting news coverage of Obama’s Shanghai visit.

The marquee event, of course, was Obama’s “town-hall” style meeting with Chinese University students. As reported in my last post, the initial idea for the meeting was thwarted after censorship issues and intervention by Chinese officials came into play. However, it was officially decided to hold the meeting in spite of the strict ramifications and at 12:45pm in the Museum of Science and Technology, Barack met with approximately 500 students to discuss current affairs: namely government Internet censorship and the “Great Firewall .”

As there has been a plethora of coverage regarding this event, as well as Barack’s visit, I won’t go into great detail. But here is a quick synopsis of the good, bad and interesting moments of the slightly stilted, heavily planned and definitely censored Q & A:

  • PLUS: The meeting was not televised live on China’s state TV network, however, live broadcasts were carried by Xinhua news agency sites and on local TV stations throughout Shanghai (supposedly uncensored, although there were various delays). The White House also streamed the event live on its Web site, which is not blocked or censored in China  and a simultaneous Chinese translation was offered.  As a result, the meeting was streamed live by an approximate 120,000 Chinese viewers and Xinhua news site reported a subsequent 50,000,000 page views of the Q & A transcript.
  • MINUS: When asked the million dollar question regarding Internet censorship and the “Great Firewall,” Obama tip-toed around directly delving into the question and replied: “Well, I’m a big supporter of non-censorship”. Um, Where? When? How? Why? Can you contextualize this a bit? As this “safe” answer reverberated around the somberly silent room, I think the hearts sank of Chinese youth in attendance and the thousands listening in. Poof! Went the visions of this hip American president addressing this contentious issue head-on with an opinion or a plan. Obama’s trying kids…but he’s also a supporter of “non-pissing off” authorities too.
  • PLUS: In this same breath, when asked the pivotal question regarding Twitter (namely, that Chinese netizens are denied access to this service) Obama touted the importance of freedom on the Internet and information access to all.
  • MINUS: Obama also admits he doesn’t tweet…so what was all that “I’m a cool new media user, just like you” talk during his election campaign ’08? More importantly, who the heck am I following on Twitter under the handle, Barack Obama?
  • PLUS: Internet freedom touted by Obama immediately made headlines across Chinese news sites.
  • MINUS: A mere 27 minutes later this news story was censored and deleted by government intervention.
  • PLUS: Chinese citizens not present at the meeting were able to submit questions for President Obama via a State Department chat-room.
  • MINUS: Meanwhile, the 500 “students” present in the audience had been quite obviously handpicked by Chinese authorities, as many were members of the Communist Youth League and others were later discovered to be…well, simply not students. Shanghaiist reports:  “Turns out one of the fake students to ask Obama a question was in fact the Vice Director of Daily Affairs for the Communist Youth League at Fudan University’s Graduate School, and another was in fact a teacher who just happened to look young.”
  • WEIRD: Following the town-hall meeting, one of these students, Tao Weishuo, ran to the Washington Post with this whopper of a statement: “I strongly disagree with what Obama said about the Internet firewall… I think all Chinese people have Internet freedom – we can speak out freely on the Internet about current social affairs.” Tao’s blunt comment generated hard-hitting backlash all over cyberspace, as horrified netizens blasted Tao for painting a false picture about Internet freedom and access.
  • WEIRDER: Tao also happens to be a graduate student at Fudan University…i.e. my current graduate school. Progressive Tao…real progressive.
  • LET’S END IT ON A HIGH NOTE: Despite this scripted event, the mere opportunity for dialogue between the American president and Chinese citizens resonated for some as a clear reason for change. As one netizen tweeted: “I will not forget this morning…I heard, on my shaky Internet connection, a question about our own freedom which only a foreign leader can discuss.”

Directly following the town-hall meeting Barack jumped on a plane to Beijing to talk human rights with Hu, visit the Great Wall with a slew of photogs and even stop for a quick hug with his half-brother Mark Obama Ndesandjo.

And now?

Well, both Obama and that fierce cold front have since moved on and Shanghai has warmed to its typical 60 degree weather and normal news reports of local happenings. But has anything changed on account of the much hyped visit, or has the excitement, hope and anticipation been shelved like those controversial Oba-Mao T-shirts and key rings?

The reviews have been plenty, the opinions blunt, but I really think the key component highlighted by this whole event is the clear reminder of the state’s stubborn grip on its civic control mechanisms. This was an event held to discuss Internet censorship and control within China, and yet it only came to fruition under the conditions that it was both carefully censored and controlled. Hu Jintao points to China’s societal progression as it continues to modernize, but the Obama town-hall meeting is yet another example of maintaining status quo by tight information control. This is no longer acceptable when applied to the borderless, boundless, infinite expansion of the Internet and its burgeoning public sphere of Chinese participants.

As was evident in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, carefully orchestrated fan fare is a part of the Chinese ilk. But beyond ceremonious sporting events and elaborate shows, what happens when the tight choreography acts as road blocks to information and big brother to civic participation? This wasn’t directly addressed during Barack’s visit, nor will it be completely solved in the next. But as more and more tech-savvy Chinese circumnavigate the censors and take to cyberspace with their growing discontent, issues like these won’t be as easily side-stepped…by foreign leaders or China’s own.

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