Elizabeth Dalziel/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama is greeted by Chinese President Hu Jintao after his arrival at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on Monday.
President Obama is greeted by Chinese President Hu Jintao after his arrival at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on Monday. Elizabeth Dalziel/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama sat down with Chinese leader Hu Jintao in Beijing on Monday to talk trade, climate change and economics hours before addressing university students on the delicate subjects of censorship and Internet access in the nation of 1.3 billion.
The White House delegation met with Hu at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, where Obama hoped to impart his belief that few global challenges can be solved unless the world's only superpower and its rising competitor work together. He and his advisers have insisted in virtually all public utterances since he arrived in Japan on Friday: "We do not seek to contain China's rise."
Obama echoed that message in a town hall-style meeting with university students in Shanghai, where he assured his young audience that the United States has more to gain from working with a rising China than standing against it.
Qian Jin is a former news assistant at NPR's Shanghai Bureau. He is now a Ph.D. candidate in communication at Fudan University in Shanghai. He was selected to attend the town hall-style meeting.
"I believe cooperation must go beyond our government. It must be rooted in our people — in the studies we share, in the business that we do, the knowledge that we gain, and even in the sports that we play," the U.S. president said.
Obama said the United States is not seeking to impose any system of government on any other nation, "but we also don't believe that the principles we stand for are unique to our nation."
"These freedoms of expression and worship, of access to information, and political participation, we believe are universal rights," he said. "They should be available to all people, including ethnic and religious minorities, whether they are in the United States, China or any other nation."
Censorship and Beijing's record on human rights — especially its treatment of ethnic minorities such as Tibetans and the Uighur people concentrated in China's southwest Xinjiang province — are especially sensitive issues between the two nations.
In his opening statement to the students in Shanghai, Obama spoke bluntly about the benefits of individual freedoms in a country known for limiting them. Social networking Web sites such as Facebook and Twitter are among those blocked to China's estimated 250 million Internet users by the government's so-called Great Firewall.
"I think that 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 told students during his first-ever trip to China. "They can begin to think for themselves."
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama answers questions during a town hall-style meeting Monday at the Museum of Science and Technology in Shanghai.
President Obama answers questions during a town hall-style meeting Monday at the Museum of Science and Technology in Shanghai. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
He credited the Internet with helping him win the presidency because it allowed for the mobilization of young Americans not unlike those in the audience at Shanghai's Museum of Science and Technology.
"I'm a big supporter of non-censorship," Obama said. "I recognize that different countries have different traditions. I can tell you that in the United States, the fact that we have free Internet — or unrestricted Internet access — is a source of strength, and I think should be encouraged."
In the U.S., he noted, the free flow of information extended to a healthy debate about government. He acknowledged that he has "a lot of critics" that can say "all kinds of things" about him.
"I actually think that makes our democracy stronger, and it makes me a better leader," he told the gathered students.
The town hall was not broadcast live across China on television, but was shown on local Shanghai TV and streamed online on two big national Internet portals.
He also told students that China and the United States needed to demonstrate that they could work together to solve big problems, such as climate change. The two nations are cooperating more than ever on battling global warming, but they still differ deeply over hard targets for reductions in the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause it.
"I can tell you other countries around the world will be waiting for us," Obama said. "They will watch to see what we do. And if they say, 'Ah, the United States and China aren't serious about this,' then they won't be serious either. That is the burden of leadership that both of our countries carry."
On Monday night, Hu played host to Obama at an informal dinner. The most substantive talks were set for Tuesday, when the two leaders were to meet in Beijing's Great Hall of the People. After that, Obama will do some sightseeing, visiting the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.
Obama is in the midst of a weeklong Asia trip. He came with a vast agenda of security, economic and environmental concerns.
He is expected to raise the issue of the yuan's exchange rate. China maintains a de facto peg to the U.S. dollar through its "managed float" regime, which has been criticized for keeping the yuan's value artificially low. That is a boon to the country's huge export economy because it keeps the price of "Made in China" products low.
From NPR staff and wire reports