It almost didn't happen, but U.S. President Barack Obama will get a chance to showcase his famous oratory skills - live, but not quite uncensored - when he fields questions from Chinese university students in Shanghai Monday.
Anxious Chinese authorities, however, have decided not to broadcast the "town hall" style question-and-answer session live on the country's main television network.
The White House had originally hoped Mr. Obama's 75-minute dialogue with students from eight Shanghai universities would be broadcast live on the state-owned Central China Television network. But the Communist government, apparently wary of what the charismatic Mr. Obama might say in the unscripted event, refused the request.
The town hall was almost cancelled completely, but the two sides reached a last-minute compromise Sunday that will see it broadcast live on local Shanghai television, as well as on the website of the official Xinhua news agency. Phoenix Television, a Hong Kong-based network seen in some parts of mainland China, is also expected to broadcast the event uncensored. However, the vast majority of China's 1.3 billion citizens will only see whatever edited bits CCTV decides to show later. The U.S. State Department is also planning a live feed on Twitter, and the Chinese government has reportedly agreed to allow access to the website for the day for Internet users on Shanghai university campuses.
China's refusal to broadcast Mr. Obama's town hall live suggests that they are more leery of him than previous U.S. leaders. A speech by Bill Clinton at Beijing University, followed by a question-and-answer session with students, was broadcast live on Chinese television during his presidential visit in 1998, as was George W. Bush's speech and interaction with students at Tsinghua University in 2002. Both presidents called for China to allow greater political and religious freedoms.
The Shanghai town hall is the only public interaction Mr. Obama is scheduled to have on his three-day visit. After the town hall, and a meeting with Yu Zhengsheng, the local Communist Party boss, he travels to Beijing for talks with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.
The number of students who will form the live audience at Shanghai's Science and Technology Museum was also a subject of dispute. The U.S. side had originally envisioned inviting 1,000 students, while Chinese authorities reportedly wanted only 50 carefully selected students to take part. The two sides eventually agreed 500 people would be present.
Mr. Obama is also expected to answer questions received over the Internet via China's Xinhua news agency and a special website the State Department has set up for the event. Many of the questions submitted in recent days pick at sensitive areas in the U.S.-China relationship, such as a growing number of trade disputes and long-standing U.S. support for the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader whom Beijing considers a violent separatist. "How would Americans feel if our leader hugged Osama bin Laden like U.S. presidents did to the Dalai Lama?" was one question submitted via Xinhua.
Those who sent in questions via the State Department website seemed more concerned with persuading Mr. Obama to deliver a tough message to China's authoritarian government on the need for more democracy and freedom of speech. Many anonymously pleaded with Mr. Obama to make a statement against expanding Internet censorship in China, known locally as the Great Firewall. "We need Twitter, we need Facebook, we need google.com. We need a free, open and equal Internet," read one plea on the State Department site.
China has the world's largest population of Internet users, with an estimated 300 million people online. However, the government blocks access to Facebook, Twitter and many other social-networking sites, as well as thousands of other Web pages it deems politically unsuitable. Google has also run afoul of the authorities at times, ostensibly for making it easy for users to find pornography.
CCTV has censored Mr. Obama before. A broadcast of his inaugural address in January was abruptly cut when Mr. Obama praised those who "faced down fascism and communism" in the past. Mr. Obama's warning that "those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent know that you are on the wrong side of history" also never reached CCTV viewers.Report Typo/Error