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Ordinary Chinese Wait For Obama's Deeds, Not Words

President Obama talks to the audience following a town hall meeting at the Museum of Science and Technology in Shanghai.
Saul Loeb
President Obama talks to the audience following a town hall meeting at the Museum of Science and Technology in Shanghai.

Before the summit in Beijing Tuesday, President Obama had met several times with his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao. But making his first presidential trip to Asia, this is Obama's first contact with people in China, and he did not received the rock star reception that has greeted him in other regions such as Europe.

One of Obama's main messages has been that the U.S. does not seek to contain China or force its values on it.

Many Chinese welcome that message, but they don't necessarily trust it.


"This humility is a kind of pose," says Yu Baoping, a Beijing resident. "Of course as America's president, he's got to protect America's interests, and I suspect that could harm China's interests. For example, he's slapped high duties on imports from China and this has had a big impact on us."

Beijing-based blogger Rao Jin acknowledges that Obama is charismatic. But he sees little difference between Obama's China policies and those of his predecessor. Many American analysts see President Bush's China policies as relatively successful and advocated that Obama continue them. But not Rao.

"Chinese peoples' opinion of him will only change when he does things that bring substantial benefits to U.S.-China relations, such as refusing to meet with the Dalai Lama, stop taking protectionist trade measures and stop selling arms to separatist forces such as Taiwan."

Last year, Rao founded Anti-CNN, a Web site devoted to exposing perceived bias in Western media reports about China.

The U.S. embassy in Beijing had invited Rao to blog Monday's town-hall discussion in Shanghai, but Chinese organizers had already picked the audience, and Rao didn't get in.


The U.S. also had pressed to have the discussion broadcast live, but Chinese officials declined. It was only broadcast live in Shanghai, thus limiting the reach of Obama's message. On Chinese Web portals, censors deleted parts of the discussion that dealt with Internet censorship.

Rao argues that Obama's use of the Internet has won him many online fans in China. But, he says, he has also has created unrealistic expectations of a more friendly United States.

"When these fans discover that he can't make good on his promises, the mood on the Internet could coalesce very quickly and turn into a force against him."

An online survey by the Global Times showed 86 percent of respondents were indifferent to Obama's visit, while 46 percent said they disliked the U.S. president. The Global Times is known as a nationalist tabloid, but the poll still suggests a big change since the end of last year, when an online poll by the China Daily found 75 percent support for Obama.

Other Chinese had hoped that Obama would raise the human rights issue more forcefully with the Chinese government.

"I can't say that I don't feel any sense of loss," says Pu Zhiqiang, a Beijing-based civil rights lawyer. "Over the past decade, I've had to convince myself not to hope that external forces can change China."

Pu is particularly critical of the highly staged town hall events.

"This kind of event does not represent the thinking of China's youth. It's the same as previous visits to China by American presidents," Pu says. "This sort of rehearsed performance is disrespectful to our guests and deceitful towards our own people."

Pu notes that U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton visited Beijing's top universities in 2002 and 1998 respectively, and held discussions with students.

While Clinton and then-President Jiang Zemin fielded questions from reporters in 1998, Obama and Hu each made statements to the press Tuesday, but took no questions.