“So [the ambassador] says, I’ve got a question; this one comes from the Embassy web site.’ That might not even be true—which would make my point even better; ‘Okay, you’re fixing your questions, we’re fixing our questions too.’ So the ambassador asks, ‘Have you ever heard of the Great Firewall and what do you think about censorship?’ I thought that was really clever. I don’t think Obama’s answer made the absolute most of the opportunity but he did make some interesting points there. The most interesting of which was, ‘You know, it’s important to hear unpleasant news.’ Here he’s walked into this setting where everything is fixed so that there could be nothing unpleasant. And he’s saying to this group of students and presumably to anyone who manages to follow this within China that setting yourselves vis a vis access to information so that anything that’s inconvenient gets filtered out or blocked, is a bad idea. That was a very good answer and it was very much appropriate to the circumstance, too.”

The wrong storyline

“To the extent that the American media embarks on this trip with some version of this very familiar storyline—that Obama, this great celebrity, this great speaker, this media star, this grand personality, is going to stroll through China and win the day—to the extent that they bought into that storyline and expected it to function, at any meaningful levels shows an extraordinary misunderstanding of China. You can fault that storyline on many other levels, but it shows a total misunderstanding of China. The Chinese doesn’t want to be part of our storyline. Everything about China is set up so that Chinese people don’t have foreign heroes. They do not wish for their culture to adopt foreign idols and to be subjected to foreign narratives. It’s not simply a question of accepting foreign political ideas. It’s a question of building up a Chinese nation and a Chinese sense of identity and a Chinese sense of destiny and of strength and of cultural depth. So everything about that society is arranged deliberately, from education to propaganda to censorship to the workings of nationalism to policing a kind of membrane between China and the outside world.

“So here you have this American press that’s used to writing very superficially about Obama along these lines of, ‘So he’s going to give a great speech and we’re going to watch him convince a lot of people and that’s going to be great theater for us and we can score this on that basis.’ One of the questions even before he even got there was, is there Obama-mania? There’s no Obama-mania in China! The Chinese authorities will not allow for that to happen. It doesn’t matter, whatever you think of Obama—how great he is, how poor he is—they simply will not allow for there to be an idol like that. The government, which sits above the media and supervises it, will not allow for a figure to emerge that way, will not allow a Chinese figure to emerge that way. So to think, ‘OK, here comes Obama and he’s going to really be allowed to have a presence in the Chinese media’—how do you become a celebrity that’s not through presence in the media, that’s going to begin to sway a lot of Chinese hearts and minds? Forget it. That’s totally naïve.

“The Chinese press were not allowed to build [Obama] up as a big story. This story is bothersome for China on any number of levels. China has its own minorities and its own minority problems. So the notion that a member of the minority of the United States that has the had most significant historical issues and problems can suddenly become the president of the United States and we’re going to build this up into this grand celebratory narrative? I mean, forget it! You think the Chinese are going to allow that to happen? No way. Never in a million years. But the press that doesn’t know China comes to this issue with all of those sensibilities. They ask, ‘I saw an Obama T-shirt and what does that mean?’ It’s silly and it’s dismaying and it’s naive and it’s unknowing, basically.”

The missed story

“Among what we know about the visit, we don’t everything that was said privately obviously, I think perhaps the most important single item or announcement is the matter of sending 100,000 American students to China. I think this is of huge importance, and I don’t think it got treated that way by the press at all. It got treated as a throwaway almost, like a footnote. It was presented as one in a list of things, no one broke it out and actually talked about what this could really mean.

Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.