Chinese Media Censor Obama Speech

A censored version of U.S. President Barack Obama’s inaugural address leaves Chinese viewers puzzled.

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Obama CCTV 305 A screenshot taken from a live CCTV broadcast of U.S. President Barack Obama's inaugural address, Jan. 21, 2009.

HONG KONG—Viewers of China’s state-run television hoping to hear a live broadcast of U.S. president Barack Obama’s inaugural address were left confused when the feed abruptly cut back to the news studio following a reference to communism.

Former reporter Zan Aizong, of Zhejiang’s China Ocean News, said he watched the live broadcast via the Internet and said the authorities are too sensitive about censoring these types of subjects.

“This should not have been censored because he wasn’t even directly addressing China, so what are they so sensitive about? He is a U.S. president who has just taken office so it is impossible for him to talk in depth about China’s problems. China would not have been given more than a passing reference, if any,” he said.

“I think this is just an issue of their sensitivity. What’s so great about communism? Besides, all of the books published in China, such as books that discuss totalitarianism and so on, have acknowledged the bad parts of communism,” he said.

The ruling Communist Party closely monitors the media in China, which is entirely state-run, allowing little room for reinterpretation of the official line. Beijing often condemns foreign influence on its internal affairs.

Awkward interruption

State broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) broadcast the event live with simultaneous translation into Chinese early on Wednesday morning, Beijing time.

But after Obama spoke of earlier generations of Americans who had “faced down fascism and communism,” the transmission audio faded, and the camera cut to a clearly unprepared news anchor.

The anchor managed to pose an apparently irrelevant question on how the incoming president would handle the U.S. economic downturn.

Chinese who watched the transmission, or who read about it later that day, were puzzled by the broadcast.

A Beijing resident surnamed Zhou, who declined to provide her given name, said she had not seen the CCTV broadcast but had seen a report on the incident on an overseas-based Website.

“I didn’t watch it on CCTV, but I saw some online reporting. It seemed very awkward to me to hear him mention fascism and communism as two related forms of government,” she said.

Internet censorship

When questioned by reporters about the cut away from Obama's address during the broadcast, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said she was "not aware of the issue...but I think the Chinese media have their own editing rights."

But later on Wednesday, Chinese Web portals—such as Sina, Sohu, and NetEase—all carried English and Chinese versions of the Obama speech in which some portions were censored.

The Web sites not only deleted the word “communism,” but some Web sites, such as Sina and Sohu, censored the entire portion of the Obama speech following his use of the word.

Although the section of the speech was deleted in which Obama told “those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent” that the U.S. would “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” many of these portals received thousands of posts showing the missing words from the text.

One Sohu user’s post read: “There are two fewer sentences in this report, and an interesting word was dropped. Everyone try to find a translation and let’s compare. The inaugural address was also changed, so that it would not reveal what our government intends to hide. Was this truly necessary? This was by no means the complete speech!”

Yearning for information

Yao Lifa, a rights activist in China’s central Hubei province, said the censoring of Obama’s address shows how “absurd” the government is and called the move a “denial of the Chinese people’s right to know about the outside world.”

Yao, who was placed under house arrest for several days by authorities to prevent him from attending an inaugural celebration party held by the U.S. General Consulate in Wuhan, was released on Wednesday morning and was unable to watch Obama’s inauguration.

“Across the world there are many people who yearn for the current political system in the U.S., but [the authorities] want to stop this kind of information from being transmitted. It’s only natural that the words in Obama’s inaugural speech should address these issues,” Yao said.

“In that sense, it’s just possible that some of the corrupt members within the Party were made to feel very vulnerable and panicked, afraid that more people would hear this kind of message. This is especially true when such a straightforward opinion from an incoming American president is directed to the rest of the world,” he said.

Censoring the U.S.

The censoring of Obama’s address is not the first time China has altered the words of U.S. officials.

The Chinese transcript of a 2004 speech in Shanghai by former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney deleted references to political freedom.

The 2003 memoirs of Hillary Clinton were pulled from bookshelves after it was learned that a government-backed publisher had removed references to the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests and comments on human rights activists in China.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Yan Xiu. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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