Early media coverage of President Obama’s visit to China wondered how widely his remarks there would be allowed to be heard because of strict censorship by that government.

After a temporary easing up during the 2008 Olympics,
China’s system of online controls has grown noticeably stricter in
recent months, and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook
are now blocked. The decision to block Twitter followed the Iranian use
of the social networking site in June, says Xiao Qiang, the director of
the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley.
Websites discussing sensitive topics like Tibet, the Tiananmen
crackdown and the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement are also
routinely blocked, and in the Xinjiang region, which experienced bloody
ethnic riots in July, people are barred from public Internet access and
international phone service.

So the White House set up access to the broadcast of Obama’s
townhall on its own website, just in case. It was broadcast live on
some American news networks, his remarks to Chinese students, nudging their government to open access to information. He’s trying to make waves without rocking the boat.

“We do not seek to impose any system of government on
any other nation,” Obama said at a town hall with Chinese university
students, believed to be the most extensive such forum held by a U.S.
president on Chinese soil. But, he said, such things as freedom of
expression and worship, unfettered access to information and
unrestricted political participation “should be available to all
people, including ethnic and religious minorities, whether they are in
the United States, China or any nation.”

In fact, as that Time piece noted, he added that unrestricted access
to information and political participation are not principles held by
the United States but “universal rights.”

Speaking of which…..and rocking the boat…..and government censorship and all….

I saw a movie over the weekend called ‘Pirate Radio’ and decided to
look into the fascinating background of people finding ways to
broadcast while eluding efforts to shut them down. Reading over a Wiki entry, I found this: 

In 1948, the United Nations brought into being the
Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, of which Article 19 states
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this
right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to
seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and
regardless of frontiers.”

Somebody text Obama and tell him that might be a talking point. Not
that the Chinese government has respected universal human rights, even
when pressured in the runup to the Olympics there. But it’s a good
reminder to rogue bloggers and Twitterers and broadcasters behind the
firewall that their right to get information, to speak out and be heard
is backed in that declaration.

And Obama’s remarks are a reminder that people who hold their government accountable back home should not be targeted for ridicule.

“I’m a big supporter of non-censorship,” Obama said…And
he appeared to be talking directly to China’s leaders when he said that
he believes free discussion, including criticism that may be annoying
to him, makes him “a better leader because it forces me to hear
opinions that I don’t want to hear.”

Listening is the next step.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....