President Barack Obama gave China a pointed, unexpected nudge to stop censoring the Internet access of its own people, offering an animated defense of the tool that helped him win the White House — and telling his tightly controlled hosts not to be wary of a little criticism.
"I think that the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable," Obama said Monday in a town hall with students in Shanghai during his first-ever trip to China. "They can begin to think for themselves."
Just hours ahead of talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Obama tried to find a political balance, couching his admonitions with words of cooperation, praise and American humility. He said few global challenges can be solved unless the world's only superpower and its rising competitor work together, and he insisted: "We do not seek to contain China's rise."
But in his opening statement and in answers to the wide-ranging discussion with university students, Obama spoke bluntly about the benefits of individual freedoms in a place known for limiting them.
"We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation," Obama said. Then he added that freedom of expression and worship, unfettered access to information and unrestricted political participation are not principles held by the United States; instead, he called them "universal rights."
"I'm a big supporter of non-censorship," Obama said. "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."
Given where Obama was speaking, such a comment carried strong implications. And he appeared to be talking directly to China's leaders when he said that he believes free discussion, including criticism that he sometimes finds annoying, makes him "a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don't want to hear."
China has more than 250 million Internet users and employs some of the world's tightest controls over what they see. The country is often criticized for having the so-called "Great Firewall of China," which refers to technology designed to prevent unwanted traffic from entering or leaving a network.
Obama's town hall was not broadcast live across China on television. It was shown on local Shanghai TV and streamed online on two big national Internet portals, but the quality was choppy and hard to hear. AP