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Handshakes and Vetted Questions: Obama’s Chinese Town Hall

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Michael Scherer / Shanghai Monday, Nov. 16, 2009
Time Magazine
Monday, November 16, 2009

It was a town hall, but this time Barack Obama was not in Iowa or New Hampshire. There were no hay bales, no bunting and no activists with questions about universal health care, clean coal or legalizing marijuana. This forum, after all, was being held in a nation controlled by the Communist Party.

Instead of being greeted by voters mulling their options, Obama on Monday met with several hundred well-dressed, attentive and relentlessly on-message students, handpicked by Chinese authorities for the occasion. They listened attentively, nodding in agreement at some of his answers and laughing at his jokes. Most of their questions were something less than challenging. “What measures will you take to deepen this close relationship between cities of the United States and China?” asked the first questioner, a young woman whom Obama picked randomly from the crowd.

“What’s the main reason that you were honored with the Nobel Prize for Peace?” asked another. A third followed up on the Nobel Prize line of inquiry. “What’s your university/college education that brings you to get such kind of prizes?”


It was the first time a U.S. President had ever hosted a town hall in the Communist Party–controlled state, and the terms of the event were carefully negotiated between diplomats from both countries. The selection of the audience aside, Chinese authorities also picked three questions that had been submitted over the Internet — including one that was sharply critical of U.S. support for the Taiwanese military. U.S. ambassador Jon Huntsman read an additional question, which the White House said had been randomly selected from a group of online submissions acquired by the U.S. government.

Huntsman’s question, the most controversial of the night, asked about the “great firewall” that prevents open access to the Internet in China, where many websites are blocked by government censors. “I’m a big supporter of noncensorship,” Obama said in a section of the event that was described on the website of Xinhua, the state-run news agency. “This is part of the tradition of the United States.”

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This article was posted: Monday, November 16, 2009 at 10:28 am

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