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In China, Obama Pushes for More Freedoms

November 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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During his visit to China, President Obama urged the government to scale back its censorship, but he also called for more cooperation with the U.S.
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JIM LEHRER: President Obama began a three-day visit to China today with a call for cooperation. But he also prodded the communist government to scale back censorship and to tolerate more criticism.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman has our lead story report.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president arrived in the world’s most populace country late on Sunday aiming to build on a growing U.S.-China relationship.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Good to see you again.

KWAME HOLMAN: Big issues dotted his agenda today with Chinese President Hu Jintao, from trade, to climate change, to the economy.

And, at their first meeting in Beijing, Mr. Obama sought to enlist China’s help across the board.

BARACK OBAMA: I think the world recognizes the importance of the U.S.-China relationship, not only for the prosperity and security of our two countries, but also because so many of the world’s challenges cannot be solved unless the United States and China work together.

KWAME HOLMAN: But there was another challenge: how to address China’s record on human rights. The president broached the topic at a town hall meeting with university students in Shanghai earlier in the day.

BARACK OBAMA: We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation, but we also don’t believe that the principles that we stand for are unique to our nation.

These freedoms of expression and worship, of access to information and political participation, we believe are universal rights. They should be available to all people, including ethnic and religious minorities, whether they are in the United States, China, or any nation.

Obama speaks out on censorship

KWAME HOLMAN: Following past practice for such events, Chinese authorities detained dozens of human rights activists in advance of the president's visit.

Mr. Obama did not mention the crackdown, but he did chide the Chinese government for Internet censorship. China has 250 million Internet users, but also employs the world's tightest controls over Web access.

BARACK OBAMA: I am a big believer in technology and I'm a big believer in openness when it comes to the flow of information. 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. They can begin to think for themselves. That generates new ideas. It encourages creativity.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president suggested China's communist rulers should have nothing to fear from more openness. He cited criticism he faces at home.

BARACK OBAMA: The truth is that, because in the United States information is free, and I have a lot of critics in the United States who can say all kinds of things about me, I actually think that that makes our democracy stronger and it makes me a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don't want to hear.

KWAME HOLMAN: It was unclear how many Chinese were exposed to Mr. Obama's opinions. The town hall was carried only on local television in Shanghai. An Internet feed was available, but the video reportedly was choppy and hard to hear.

But the Chinese leadership clearly watched. When they met later in Beijing, President Hu called the town hall quite lively.

This is the third time President Obama has met with Hu since Mr. Obama became president. It comes at a time of growing interdependence. China has become a major funder of U.S. government debt and the largest consumer of American goods and services.

At the same time, years of rapid economic growth have made China the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide, closely followed by the United States. At today's town hall in Shanghai, Mr. Obama acknowledged, the two nations differ over how to cut carbon emissions.

Cutting carbon emissions

BARACK OBAMA: The United States, as a highly developed country, as I said before, per capita, consumes much more energy and emits much more greenhouse gases for each individual than does China. On the other hand, China is growing at a much faster pace and it has a much larger population.

So, unless both of our countries are willing to take critical steps in dealing with this issue, we will not be able to resolve it.

KWAME HOLMAN: But getting China's political leadership to go along on climate change is likely to be much tougher. And the president also wants the Chinese to pressure Iran and North Korea on their nuclear program.

China specialist Ming Wan at George Mason University in Virginia says enlisting Beijing's help is a long-term project.

MING WAN: The two countries have become incredibly dependent on each other economically, but they also differ in political values and security interests.

And, so, this is not a relationship we can put in cruise control. It needs constant attention by top leaders from both sides. And it is not just a bilateral relationship. There are so many issues in the world that require mutual understanding, cooperation from both sides.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president faces challenges across Asia. At a Singapore summit over the weekend, regional leaders accused the U.S. of becoming more protectionist on trade.

JIM LEHRER: We will talk more about China later in the program.

And you can watch extended excerpts from our interview with Ming Wan on our Web site, NewsHour.PBS.org.

We also have a link to "Frontline" for the stories of nine young Chinese people coming of age in a time of change.