Why Didn't Obama Push Harder on TV Coverage in Shanghai?

by Noam Scheiber | November 28, 2009

Last week I criticized the White House for backing down when the Chinese insisted on limiting coverage of Obama's townhall meeting in Shanghai. I still think the Chinese were bluffing, and that their bluff could have been called without any fallout. But James Fallows actually raised the issue in a conversation with a government official who helped organize the trip, and the official's explanation is worth reading:

"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."

Update: Fallows has a bit more here. Including this from a knowledgeable reader:

"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 hearIt 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."

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