President Obama took questions from Chinese university students in Shanghai.… (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)
Reporting from Shanghai — President Obama told Chinese students today that the U.S. does not wish to contain China's rise, but also offered a gentle critique of their country's approach to human rights.
"We welcome China as a strong and prosperous and successful member of the community of nations," Obama said at the start of a town hall-style meeting in Shanghai as he began the China leg of his tour of Asia.
Obama acknowledged that the United States has struggled with race relations over the course of its history, but he said America would "always speak out" in favor of free expression, worship, political participation and access to information -- which he termed "universal rights."
"They should be available to all people, including ethnic and religious minorities, whether they are in the United States, China or any nation," he said.
After his opening remarks, Obama began taking questions, leaving the podium to make better eye contact with students. As is his custom at such meetings in the United States, he made a point of alternating between male and female questioners. Students sat all around him. At the back of the hall were large American and Chinese flags.
The meeting was an unusual exercise in U.S.-style participatory democracy for China. It would be unheard of for Chinese students to speak with their own president, Hu Jintao, in such an informal setting. Some of the questions posed, such as those about Obama's wife and family, would be strictly off-limits.
The White House pushed to have the event broadcast live over Chinese television, but Beijing resisted, allowing live coverage only on Shanghai television. Anyone in China with an Internet connection, however, could watch by logging onto the White House website, where it was streamed live, U.S. officials said.
Apart from questions posed by students, Obama also took questions submitted via the Internet.
More than 400 students from eight Shanghai universities attended the event, held at the Shanghai Science & Technology Museum. Students who wanted to see Obama and possibly ask him a question had to submit applications through their universities.
As they filed in, neatly dressed and carrying notepads and pens, some of the students said they were excited and had spent days preparing. They looked to be in their early 20s. One smiled at the press corps and flashed the peace sign.
One person asked Obama if he used Twitter and was aware of China's Internet firewall. Obama said his thumbs are too "clumsy" for him to send messages via Twitter. But he said that information should flow unhindered, even if that proves uncomfortable for politicians.
"I can tell you that in the United States the fact that we have unrestricted Internet access is a source of strength," Obama said, "and should be encouraged."
He added: "Now, I should tell you that, as president of the United States, there are times when I wish information didn't flow so freely because then I wouldn't have to listen to people criticizing me all the time. I actually think that makes our democracy stronger and it makes me a better leader, because it forces me to hear opinions that I don't want to hear."
After the town hall, Obama was to fly to Beijing for a meeting with Hu, the Chinese president. Obama was on the fourth day of a weeklong trip to Asia. He has already visited Singapore and Japan. When he leaves China he will head to the South Korean capital, Seoul, before returning home Nov. 19.
Among students, shopkeepers and Internet users, President Obama's visit to Shanghai has been one of the most anticipated by a foreign leader to China in recent years.
"I have a very good impression of Obama," said Shanghai resident Jiang Heting, 21. "Even though I've read that some Americans disapprove of how he's handling the economic crisis, I still like him very much."
They also recognize China's growing power and influence on the international stage.
"This is the first time that China and America will talk as equals," said Zhang Shun, a student at East China University of Political Science and Law.
"It was the first town-hall meeting in China and it was a very good dialogue," said Ding Xinhao, president of Shanghai Institute of American Studies, shortly after the event.
He said, however, that he believed that Obama was less effective in communicating with the Chinese students than President Bill Clinton was in 1998, when meeting with students at Beijing University. "President Obama didn't listen to the questions as carefully and his answers were a little long. He wanted to add additional information rather than answering the questions directly."
Times staff writer Barbara Demick in Beijing and special correspondent Jean Yung in Shanghai contributed to this report.