“It got off to a slow start and I’m thinking this is really a missed opportunity on a number of levels. I didn’t know immediately, I found out subsequently, that Washington had been led to believe that there would be wider broadcast of this event within China than what happened. So that was a disappointment. But I thought there was something pretty astute about the way the [U.S.] ambassador [to China] lobbed that question about the Great Firewall and censorship in China to Obama. I thought that was good footwork on their part. So they walk into this thing and they’re getting questions of the order of, ‘So what’s your favorite color?’ and ‘Are you happy to be in Shanghai?’ These students had basically been prepped, with the exception of the Taiwan arms question, to give no opening for anything that would be troublesome from the official Chinese perspective. So they asked the most boring, milquetoast questions you could imagine.

“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.

Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.