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Chinese media censor Obama's inaugural speech

The state-run CCTV deletes reference to communism in Chinese-language translations.

January 22, 2009|Barbara Demick

BEIJING — Only minutes into his presidency and Barack Obama had already been censored by the Chinese.

References to communism and to dissent in his inaugural address were deleted from Chinese-language translations in the state news media.

And during a television report, state-run CCTV abruptly cut away from the English-language video of Obama's speech Tuesday, leaving the anchorwoman and a Washington correspondent clearly befuddled about how to fill the airtime.

The sentence that seemed to most irritate the Chinese came when Obama said, "Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions."

Chinese versions of the speech either deleted the sentence or excised the words "and communism."

Another offending passage was Obama's admonition that "those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history." Because there was no easy way to disguise the president's meaning, many Chinese news sites omitted it.

The time difference pushed the inaugural address past 1 a.m. in China, so few viewers were watching live. If anything, reports about the censoring that circulated throughout the day might have drawn more Internet-savvy young people in China to read the speech later in English or on uncensored websites out of Hong Kong.

"What Obama said is true, so what?" wrote an online commentator.

"He was completely insulting 1.3 billion Chinese," shot back another.

Obama's remarks about "facing down" communism generated much debate online. Chinese critics were irritated mostly that he lumped communism together with fascism, while others suggested that he wasn't referring to China but to the former Soviet Union.

During the Summer Olympics in Beijing, all Chinese TV stations were ordered to delay live broadcasts by 10 seconds -- a policy that was designed to give censors time to react in case free-Tibet demonstrators or others staged political protests. But CCTV apparently wasn't expecting anything during the inauguration and was caught off guard by Obama's mention of communism.

At the very moment the Chinese interpreter voiced over the word "communism," the broadcast cut away from the speech. The anchorwoman looked momentarily confused and called out to the Washington correspondent with an awkwardly inserted question about how Obama would handle the economy. (The clip appears on YouTube.)

"This is standard practice in Chinese television. It is not that surprising," said Rebecca MacKinnon, a Hong Kong-based media expert.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney also was censored in 2004 when he talked about political freedom in a speech in Shanghai.

Since the election, Obama has become a popular figure among young Chinese, with a Chinese translation of his book "The Audacity of Hope" soaring to the bestseller list. But China's leadership has shown concern that the new president will be far tougher on trade and human rights issues than President Bush was.

The nervousness was reflected in an editorial Wednesday in the China Daily, which praised Bush's China policy and pondered what the future might hold.

"Given the popular American eagerness for a break from the Bush years, many wonder, or worry, to be precise, whether the new president would ignore the hard-earned progress in bilateral ties," the editorial says.

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

Nicole Liu of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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