Whether by White House design or Chinese insistence, President Obama has steered clear of public meetings with Chinese liberals, free press advocates and even ordinary Chinese during his first visit to China, showing deference to the Chinese leadership’s aversions to such interactions that is unusual for a visiting American president.
Mr. Obama held a “town hall” meeting with students on Monday. But they were carefully vetted and prepped for the event by the government, participants said. And the Chinese authorities, wielding a practiced mix of censorship and diplomatic pressure, succeeded in limiting Mr. Obama’s exposure to a point where a third of some 40 Beijing university students interviewed Tuesday were unaware that he had just met in Shanghai with their colleagues.
Some students who were aware cast him in terms rarely applied to American leaders, such as “rather humble,” and “bland.” “Is America being capricious because their economic difficulties force them to be nicer to China and other countries, or is this a genuine change?” asked Liu Ziqi, 18, a freshman at the University of International Business and Economics. “I don’t know.”
This is no longer the United States-China relationship of old, but an encounter between a weakened giant and a comer with a bit of its own swagger. Washington’s comparative advantage in past meetings is now diminished, a fact clearly not lost on the Chinese.
Human rights is the prime example. In 1998, President Bill Clinton staged a nationally broadcast discussion with the president at the time, Jiang Zemin, about human rights, the Dalai Lama and perhaps China’s most taboo topic, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. In 2002, President George W. Bush stressed liberty, rule of law and faith in a speech to university students broadcast across China.
When Mr. Obama himself visited Moscow in July, he met with opposition political activists and journalists, and publicly questioned the prosecution of an anti-Kremlin businessman.
In China, by contrast, Mr. Obama’s nuanced references to rights have shied from citing China’s spotty record, even when offered the chance. Asked Monday in Shanghai to discuss China’s censorship of the Internet, the president replied by talking about America’s robust political debates.
Dancing around meetings
American scholars and activists, who demanded anonymity for fear of damaging relations with the White House, said the administration rejected proposals for brief meetings in Beijing with Chinese political activists, and then with lawyers.
American officials did consider organizing meetings between Mr. Obama and Chinese lawyers, university students in Beijing and Hu Shuli, a well-known Chinese journalist who recently ceded control of Caijing, one of the nation’s most respected and independent magazines. But officials say time constraints, not political considerations, sidelined those options, although the sightseeing agenda remained intact.
One prominent defense lawyer, Mo Shaoping, said Tuesday that an American official called this month to ask if he would meet with Mr. Obama, but never called back. “The U.S. should be the safeguard of universal values,” he said, but Mr. Obama “actually didn’t make it a very high priority.”
For its part, the Chinese government made sure Mr. Obama did not bump into protesters by placing well-known activists under tighter security. Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a local organization, said 20 people were detained, placed under house arrest or prohibited from traveling before Mr. Obama’s visit.
Zhang Zuhua, once a Communist Party official and now among China’s most influential civil-rights activists, said additional police officers were watching his apartment and that he had been warned to avoid political activity.
Mr. Zhang expressed concern over what he called America’s growing reluctance to criticize China on human rights, saying “the Communist Party can pay even less regard to it and tighten up.”
But an alternative explanation for Mr. Obama’s comparatively low profile here, curiously, is the very insecurity of China’s autocratic regime.
In contrast to Mr. Jiang, who sparred openly with President Clinton over human rights, President Hu is a cautious politician whose tenure has been marked by an obsession with stability. In Mr. Obama’s case, for example, Chinese officials hamstrung negotiations over items like the national broadcast of Shanghai’s town hall meeting until they achieved most of their objectives to limit its exposure.
In China, Mr. Obama does not enjoy the matinee-idol status that has followed him elsewhere. But the Chinese are curious about the young new president, and in some cases, they clearly find him a refreshing contrast to their own retirement-age, shoe-black-haired leadership.
One topic of some awe on Chinese Internet chat sites this week was the image of Mr. Obama descending from Air Force One into rainy Beijing, holding his own umbrella aloft, without a servant’s assistance.
In a Nov. 11 Internet poll, Web surfers were asked to say what was most memorable about Mr. Obama. The majority noted his Nobel Peace Prize award. No. 2, improbable to outsiders, was a Chinese report that the president had insisted on paying for his own hamburger at a Washington restaurant.
In this basketball-crazy nation, Mr. Obama might singlehandledly have remade America’s image by showing up on the city’s many outdoor courts for a few rounds of hoops. Instead, he tiptoed around fractious issues like human rights, as Chinese authorities took extra steps to ensure that the state media not project any hint of disharmony.
One state newspaper editor said his newsroom now was more tense even than in June, when China passed the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.
Late Monday, he said, a Foreign Ministry censor insisted that two articles slated for publication on Tuesday be scrapped, including one straightforward news article on the value of China’s currency.
Mr. Obama’s trip, journalists at the paper joked, “had driven the homeless from Beijing, and brought more censorship to China.”
“It’s as if they think he’d read the paper and it would offend him and trigger an international uproar,” the editor said. “As it is now, it would only trigger a snore.”
Edward Wong, Jonathan Ansfield and Xiyun Yang contributed reporting, and Li Bibo and Zhang Jing contributed research.
This article, "During Visit, Obama Skirts Chinese Political Sensitivities," first appeared in The New York Times.