Censors block remarks on freedom, Tibet

BEIJING — President Barack Obama’s maiden voyage to China is causing quite a stir, drawing attention to Internet controls and giving Chinese citizens a glimpse of a man who is unusually popular among the general population.

The Great Firewall, China’s technological barrier to Internet freedom, occasionally throws up moments of savage irony. In this case it came when Obama made a comment about web censorship and free speech, which was subsequently blocked online and carried only on one regional broadcaster.

Initial response in the media to Obama’s visit was reasonably muted, with news of his arrival only making the third spot on the nightly news broadcast on the state broadcaster CCTV on Tuesday.

However, this was largely due to the fact that he was due to meet President Hu Jintao on Wednesday, and the focus was always going to be on that meeting.

Most Internet controls remained in place, but CCTV did carry live the joint press conference with President Hu and Obama, in which he made some strong comments on issues not normally discussed in China.

Two comments in particular will have stood out.

“I spoke to President Hu about America’s bedrock beliefs that all men and women possess certain fundamental human rights. We do not believe that these principles are unique to America, but rather they are universal rights and that they should be available to all peoples, to all ethnic and religious minorities,” Obama told the news conference.

He also mentioned the U.S. view on Tibet, where many Tibetans are seeking greater levels of autonomy and which were torn apart by violence in March last year. Beijing considers Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, a dangerous separatist.

“We did note that while we recognize that Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China, the United States supports the early resumption of dialogue between the Chinese government and the representatives of the Dalai Lama to resolve any concerns and differences that the two sides may have,” Obama said.

No questions were allowed at the media gathering.

The reaction among ordinary Chinese to Obama’s visit has been largely positive, but with some reservations.

“I think the more freedom the information enjoys, the stronger society will be. I strongly oppose censorship. But Obama is not our general secretary. His words are ineffective in China,” wrote one webizen, Lin Shixue, on the Sohu.com website.

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