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Obama Touts Internet Freedoms at Forum in China

BY Larisa Epatko  November 16, 2009 at 1:17 PM EST

President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao; AFP/Getty Images

President Obama, speaking Monday at a town hall-style forum with Chinese university students in Shanghai, made a pitch for greater access to the Internet and social-networking sites, calling such freedom a source of strength.

“I should be honest, as president of the United States, there are times where I wish information didn’t flow so freely because then I wouldn’t have to listen to people criticizing me all the time,” Mr. Obama said. But, he added, “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.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, his remarks likely reached few Chinese. While the town hall was streamed on the White House’s Web site (archived video), it wasn’t broadcast on national television in China. Nor was it streamed on the Web site of the state-run news agency, Xinhua. Instead, under the term “live broadcast,” a transcript of the meeting appeared.

At no point during the hour-long session did the president mention Chinese leadership or hot-button issues such as human rights, underscoring the conciliatory tone he’s trying to strike on a trip intended to focus largely on economy, the environment and trade tensions between the United States and China.

The town hall came on the third leg of Mr. Obama’s four-nation Asia tour, his first in office. Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations told the NewsHour that she expects the president to stick to a central theme: “The administration has its agenda quite clearly laid out. The big-picture message is America is engaged in Asia; Asia is our future.”

At the town hall forum, President Obama took eight questions, half from audience members and half from among the hundreds submitted over the Internet, in a session that the White House negotiated with the Chinese government up to the last minute, the Associated Press reported.

One student asked him about the honor and burden of winning the Nobel Peace Prize. He said he is a symbol of the shift in world affairs that his administration is trying to promote, but reiterated that he didn’t think he had deserved the award.

President Obama said there are few global challenges that can be solved unless the U.S. and China cooperate.

As nations prepare for next month’s climate change conference in Copenhagen, Obama said leaders will be watching what the U.S. and China do. “That is the burden of leadership that both of our countries now carry,” he said, quoted the AP.

Mr. Obama was scheduled to end his day in Beijing by meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

On Friday’s NewsHour, Jeffrey Brown previewed Mr. Obama’s Asia tour and recapped his meetings with Japanese leaders: