Obama Shanghai Town Hall: Mission Accomplished

I stayed up way past my bedtime last night to watch the live feed (via White House website) of the President’s town hall meeting with students in Shanghai.  I took a particular interest in this event because while serving as Consul General in Shanghai I frequently visited college campuses and engaged in similar exchanges.  the format  (minus any press interest) was similar; I’d start with 20 minutes or so of views on US-China relations (including whatever topic was hot at the time) and then open the floor to questions.  Based on those experiences here are my reactions to yesterday’s event:

1)  The students were more polite to the President than they were to me.  This is no surprise.  I am certain the participants yesterday had been warned to maintain a respectful and polite attitude and to stay away from inflammatory questions.  This reflects more than anything the sense that China would be judged around the world by the demeanor of the students at this globally aired event.  To try to embarrass the President of the US or put him on the spot would be considered poor manners and would reflect badly on China.  So the questions for the President were pretty soft, though the clever students did manage to get in a question re US policy toward Taiwan (couched as a question from a Taiwan netizen); one about US aggressiveness around the world (couched as a question contrasting China’s drive for a “harmonious society” with US greater comfort with “diversity”); and one on internet freedom (again, a question from a netizen, relayed by a student in the room).

In contrast, I found in discussions with Chinese students that given the chance without the glare of cameras they could be very pointed, posing questions such as: Wasn’t it US policies in the Middle East that brought about the 9/11 attacks?  Why does the US see itself as the policeman of the world?  (in the aftermath of the EP-3 incident) Why does the US spy on China; isn’t it true the US wants to contain and weaken China? Why is the US so protectionist and why does it impose so many anti-dumping penalties on Chinese products?

As noted above, no surprise that in a very public forum Chinese students stayed away from very direct questioning.  That said, the students in the room were among the best and brightest in the country and I was impressed (again, as noted above) in the way that they managed to gently slide in questions on controversial topics.

2)  I thought the President did a great job, especially on the human rights and information freedom issues (take that NYT!).  He clearly intended to show the audience back home that he would not shy away from raising these tough issues.  However, he did so in the most effective way possible, which can be summarized as follows:  “Here is the way we in the US think about [human rights] [treatment of minorities] [internet freedom]; we are not perfect but we think our values in these areas have been central to our success as a nation; we are not out to force our views on other countries, but we do think that basic principles of freedom and human rights apply everywhere and we will continue to speak out in support of that view.”  In other words, his responses did not contain a direct rebuke to China but rather conveyed a humble expression of why we think our values/system is good for us and why we think these basic principles are universal.

3) Tiny nitpick of interest:  in responding to the question re Taiwan the President repeated our commitment to a one China policy and the Three Communiques.  Readers who know the intricacies of US policy on this issue will note that he did not refer to the Taiwan Relations Act, which is usually part of the mantra by USG officials when they mention the Three Communiques.  I took this not to be some intentional signal but rather a function of information overload for the President.  As insiders know, the language the USG uses on the Taiwan issue is exceptionally complex and nuanced.  In fact, the President clearly stumbled a bit when at one point he referred to Taiwan and then started to say “… and the rest of China”, but unsure if that was the right formulation, caught himself and said “…and the People’s Republic”.  So to me, he had done a great job of absorbing the sensitivity attached to the language surrounding Taiwan and dropping the TRA reference was, I think, not a signal but a sign of the limits of even his prodigious capacity to master complex issues in very short time spans.

The bottom line:  my goal in talking with students was not to enter into a debate nor win them over to my point of view.  Rather, it was to show them that the US government had a thoughtful, basically friendly approach to China, even if we did not agree on all issues.  I think the President conveyed very much the same message yesterday.

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Explore posts in the same categories: China, Economy, Human Rights, Internet/Media, Shanghai, Trade

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