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Obama, sort of uncensored : China may allow a live chat with students, but many might not see it.

November 15, 2009|Barbara Demick

BEIJING — President Obama in Shanghai, live and uncensored?

At least, that was the billing the White House wanted. The president's advance team had been pressing the Chinese government to allow a town hall-style meeting with students Monday to be broadcast live on Chinese television. Well, it looks like Obama may get to air live, but many people won't be able to see it.

The TV coverage will be supplemented by feeds to Twitter and Chinese Web portals.

Negotiations are expected to continue until the last minute, but U.S. officials said they believed a compromise in principle had been struck.

"The two sides are still working on the final details such as how questions from netizens will be asked," said Susan Stevenson, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman.

Under the arrangement, the meeting with students probably will not be aired on the national CCTV network, only on Shanghai Television. But the Associated Press Television Network will produce a live feed of the meeting, which could be aired by Phoenix Television, a Hong Kong-based network that has a limited audience in the mainland.

"The ink is not yet totally set, but the issues that could have jeopardized it have been resolved," said a source familiar with the negotiations. "We found a middle ground."

Chinese censors also were reported to have lifted the firewall at some university networks in Shanghai so that students could follow feeds of the meeting on Twitter.

The White House's insistence that Obama get a chance to speak unscripted and uncensored with youths has been a sticking point in negotiations with Beijing.

With such a penchant for control that it occasionally censors its own leaders, the Chinese government doesn't like anybody speaking directly to its people, especially not a charismatic U.S. president who takes an occasional swipe at Beijing's human rights record.

Some Chinese bloggers started a "Tear Down This Firewall" campaign, a reference to Ronald Reagan's 1987 speech challenging Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.

"President Obama is coming at a critical point when the Chinese government has to address this issue of freedom of speech on the Internet. Even if it is only symbolic, whatever he says about it will send a strong signal like the one Reagan sent to the Soviets," said Bei Feng, a blogger who is helping the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou set up Twitter coverage.

U.S. officials met with prominent Chinese bloggers Thursday on how to make sure Obama's message goes out.

The questions for Obama are being gathered from Internet portals. Xinhuanet, the online version of the official New China News Service, reported that as of the deadline Saturday, 3,290 had been submitted. Which ones the president will tackle is still being negotiated.

Among the submissions:

"How do you feel about winning the Nobel Peace Prize? Does it have anything to do with you sending more troops to Afghanistan or selling arms to Taiwan?"

"What would you do if your daughters were dating?"

"Can you use chopsticks?"

"Do you have a Facebook account? May I add you as a friend?"

--

barbara.demick@latimes.com

Times staff writer David Pierson and Tommy Yang of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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