SHANGHAI (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama’s call on Monday for Internet freedom in China met with wariness and cynicism from many Chinese Internet users, suggesting his effort to win over the country’s youth has some way to go.
Some were intensely patriotic in their comments, citing China’s status as the largest holder of U.S. government debt as a reason for Obama’s polite overtures at a town hall-style meeting with students in Shanghai.
“The purpose of Obama’s visit to China is to get China to help the U.S. economy’s health. It’s like a fox in a chicken coop,” said one netizen XinDeGuiHui.
China has cut access to popular social networking sites Facebook since March and Twitter since July, citing the need for social harmony. The frontier region of Xinjiang has been unable to access any outside websites since deadly ethnic riots in July.
Chinese portals such as NetEase.com and Sina help fill the gap, with Facebook and Twitter clones and forums teeming with activity by some of China’s 350 million Internet users, who outnumber the U.S. population.
“Everyone has to work to earn a living. Who has time for Obama? China is so big with many people, will all of them be able to indulge in his visit?” read a posting on NetEase news forums by Lan Shi Zi.
Some Western governments and censorship experts say China’s ban of Facebook and Twitter is a ploy to strengthen censorship and control the flow of information.
“I’ve always been a strong supporter of open Internet use. I’m a big supporter of non-censorship,” Obama said at the town hall event in Shanghai, where he answered questions from university students as well as some submitted over the Internet.
“I can tell you that in the United States, the fact that we have freedom of — or unrestricted Internet access is a source of strength and I think should be encouraged.”
Obama’s answer was carried on the front page of NetEase for 27 minutes, before being deleted by censors, according to the China Digital Times, which monitors the Chinese Internet.
The town hall event was carefully orchestrated by the local government and was not carried live by national broadcasters. It could only be viewed on some Shanghai news channels, select international media and certain websites.
During President Bill Clinton’s visit in 1998, a question-and-answer session with Chinese students was carried live by national broadcaster CCTV.
Despite the limited distribution of Obama’s comments within China, one contributor to Twitter was surprised the issue of freedom was even raised.
“I will not forget this noon: I intermittently heard the leader of another country talk about our own problems regarding freedom,” wrote netizen Philfenghan, according to China Digital Times.
Some netizens slammed the questions, which ranged from Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize to arms sales to Taiwan, as “stupid” and wondered why trade and currency issues were not raised.
“Welcome to China. I like you. You’re so handsome. When will you come again?” was one comment, submitted in English, to the Xinhua webfeed.
Ironically, with Facebook and Twitter cut off inside China, the majority of reactions to the event were from users from the United States, Canada, Southeast Asia, Taiwan and Ireland.
Additional reporting by Golnar Motevalli, Lucy Hornby and Chris Buckley; Editing by Benjamin Kang Lim, Ken Wills and Dean Yates