The event was called a town hall, but President Barack Obama’s meeting with a group of about 500 students in this Chinese city on Monday had little in common with the sometimes raucous exchanges that have become a fixture of American politics.
It was, instead, an example of Chinese-style stagecraft. Most of the those who attended the event at the Museum of Science and Technology here turned out to be members of the Communist Youth League, an official organization that grooms obedient students for future leadership posts. Some Chinese bloggers the White House tried to invite were barred from attending. Even then, the Chinese government took no chances, declining to broadcast the event live to a national audience — or even mention that it happened on the main evening newscast of state-run China Central Television.
The scripted interaction underscored the obstacles Obama faces as he tries to manage the American relationship with authoritarian China, whose wealth and clout have surged as its economy has weathered the global downtown far more robustly than the United States or Europe.
The White House spent weeks wrangling with Chinese authorities over who would be allowed to attend the Shanghai town hall, including how much access the press would have, and whether it would be broadcast live throughout the country. In the end Obama had little chance to promote a message to the broader Chinese public, though he will answer questions along with President Hu Jintao after their meeting in Beijing on Tuesday.
The event in some respects marked a retreat from the reception given at least two former American presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both of whom asked for, and were granted, the right to address the Chinese people and answer their questions in a live national broadcast.
The official Xinhua News Agency offered only a written transcript of the exchange on its Web site instead of the live webcast it had promised. The White House streamed the event live on its Web site (www.whitehouse.gov), which did not appear to be blocked inside China. But that site is not a common destination for ordinary Chinese looking for breaking news.
Although it was carefully choreographed, the event gave Obama a slight opening to prod the Chinese authorities toward more openness.