In a delicately balanced message, Obama couched his admonitions with words calling for cooperation, heavy with praise and American humility.
"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 , " The Associated Press reports.
It was also reported, meeting with a carefully screened group of students at the marquee event of his Asia trip, President Obama on Monday sought to advance what he called America's "core principles" during his first public appearance in China. But the event itself -- billed as an opportunity for Obama to reach beyond Chinese officialdom -- illustrated the Chinese government's tight grip.
The "freedoms of expression and worship, of access to information and political participation, we believe are universal rights," Obama said at a town hall-style meeting in Shanghai, China's most modern and outward-looking metropolis. Liberty, the president told nearly 500 students bused to a science museum decked with U.S. and Chinese flags, should be "available to all people, including ethnic and religious minorities, whether they are in the United States, China or any other nation."
Virtually every aspect of the event was staged, and it was unclear how many Chinese citizens saw the hour-long exchange, which was not broadcast on national television. One of the most provocative statements Obama made -- about the importance of opening up the Internet -- was posted on Chinese news sites at first, but then was deleted, The Washington Post reports.
Reuters quoted Obama as saying, "We do not seek to contain China's rise. On the contrary, we welcome China as a strong and prosperous and successful member of the community of nations."
While billed as an opportunity for Obama to reach out to the Chinese public, the meeting bore the markings of a scripted but friendly encounter. Students dressed in suits smiled and applauded politely, and laughed when Obama tried Chinese.
"I'm a big supporter of not restricting Internet use," he said. "The more open we are, the more we can communicate and it also draws the world together," Reuters reports.
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