China, Obama and Cyber Freedom

Netizens split over the visiting U.S. president's calls for China to open up online.
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Customers surf the Web at an Internet bar in Beijing, Jan. 15, 2009.
Customers surf the Web at an Internet bar in Beijing, Jan. 15, 2009.

SHANGHAI—Chinese Internet users gave mixed reactions to calls from visiting U.S. President Barack Obama for freedom of information online during a town-hall meeting with some of China's top university students.

"I'm a big supporter of not restricting Internet use, Internet access, other information technologies like Twitter," Obama told the meeting, in response to a question about the routine blocking of the microblogging service and other social media sites by the Chinese government.

"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.

"They can begin to think for themselves."

He was responding to two questions:

"In a country with 350 million Internet users and 60 million bloggers, do you know of the firewall?" and "Should we be able to use Twitter freely?"

Ironically, Obama's comments were censored from the live Internet translation by China’s official Xinhua News Agency and were later deleted from more than 30 Web sites, Web users reported.

Great firewall

Guangzhou-based cyber activist Beifeng welcomed Obama's comments, saying that U.S. diplomats had apparently listened to the opinions of citizen journalists and bloggers about the "Great Firewall," known online simply as GFW, a complex system of blocks, filters, and censorship procedures that limits content viewable in China to what the government wants people to see.

"So many people brought up the Great Firewall issue, including the banning of wall-scaling [circumvention] software and Twitter," said Beifeng, who attended one meeting with U.S. diplomats.

"This must be one of the reasons why President Obama directly answered the question at the meeting," he said.

Beijing-based cyber commentator Lian Yue said the online reaction to Obama's comments was positive.

"We should not expect a foreign head of state to do many things for China," he said.

"But President Obama’s comments on cyber freedom really pleased Chinese netizens."

But some said Obama's influence in China was too limited to make an real impact on the human rights situation.

Petitioners held

A report detailing the detention of 90 petitioners who lost their homes because of urban redevelopment ahead of the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai was circulated widely on Twitter with the keyword ObamaCN, as the detainees had gathered in the capital in the hope of meeting Obama.

"At around 10 a.m., police officers from the Ganjiakou police station took 42 of them to the police station, while the rest escaped," the civil rights group China Rights Defenders said on its Web site.

"The police issued those detained with a 'warning letter,' which told them that their actions were 'illegal.' They were made to sign. The petitioners denied holding a mass petition. They said they had the right to welcome President Obama, that they hadn't broken the law, and refused to sign."

The 42 were taken to a holding center near the southern railway station at around 1 a.m. and deprived of their freedom of movement. They were watched by around 20 unidentified persons, it said.

"We don't know the identities of the people who are guarding us," said detainee Wang Zhihua.

"We think it's criminal elements from Beijing and the Shanghai secret police. But their accents don't sound Shanghainese."

More comments

Online social commentator and activist Ai Weiwei said the detentions showed just how little the U.S. president could do in China.

"These people were detained because of Obama's visit," Ai said on Twitter.

"He shouldn't come here and hold talks with a dictatorial regime and pretend that the human rights situation of the Chinese people has anything to do with him."

Another Twitter user, sailholder, compared Chinese who expected political support from Obama to those who gave land concessions to foreign colonial powers more than a century ago.

"A lot of people want to ask Obama about the GFW. These people believe that the basis of political power lies with foreigners," sailholder wrote.

"This is on a par with Sun Wen, who wanted to hand over three of China's eastern provinces to the Japanese in return for financial support ... Obama's visit is about giving face to China's leaders."

And Twitter user houseash added: "How is Obama going to help Chinese people with their human rights issues when he has a whole heap of human rights problems on his own doorstep? He will be lucky not to add to the mess."

Just before Chinese censors erased Obama’s criticism of their own activities, Shanghai netizens were surprised on Sunday by a brief taste of browsing freedom.

Overseas Web sites like Boxun and Radio Free Asia were unblocked as the president flew in to the city, netizens said.

But they said the gesture was short-lived, and merely intended as a courtesy to the visiting U.S. leader.

Quipped Twitter user xiahua: "Obama to China: Stop censoring the Internet. China to Obama: I think we're going to censor you on the Internet."

Original reporting in Mandarin by Shen Hua in Shanghai and Ding Xiao in Hong Kong. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Additional translation by Chen Ping. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.





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