Sunday, November 15, 2009

Obama takes to the Web to talk to China

SHANGHAI — US President Barack Obama will try Monday to break out of the official constraints of his maiden state visit to China and seek to talk directly to Chinese people in a live dialogue via the Internet.

Obama is set to hold a campaign-style town-hall meeting with students in Shanghai, before heading to Beijing for talks Tuesday with President Hu Jintao on tough issues like trade, global crises including Iran and climate change.

The US leader, on the third leg of his debut tour of Asia, is to make brief remarks to a high-powered audience described by the White House as "future Chinese leaders," at Shanghai's science and technology museum.

Obama held hundreds of such events on the 2008 White House campaign trail and has used them as president to reach out over the head of traditional news networks in a bid to talk directly to voters.

Officials have been evasive over what kind of restrictions Obama's Chinese hosts have placed on the event, given tight controls on Internet content -- the so-called "Great Firewall of China".

It was unclear whether it would be carried live or unfiltered on Chinese national television.

The students were picked by department heads from universities around Shanghai, and the technology-savvy White House solicited questions over the Internet for the president.

The White House planned to stream the event on its website, taking aim at hundreds of millions of Chinese Internet users. Chinese state media said the website of the official Xinhua news agency would also carry the event live.

Ahead of the town hall meeting, Obama was to hold talks with Shanghai's mayor and Communist party chief.

Later, the formal business of a full US-China state visit will get under way, when Obama flies to Beijing for an official welcoming ceremony and dinner with Hu at the Diaoyutai state guest house.

After a day of talks on Tuesday and some sight-seeing, Obama will be honoured with the lavish pageantry of a state dinner.

Obama touched down in Shanghai in a rainstorm late Sunday for his first visit to the Asian giant -- a three-day mission aimed at convincing Beijing that Washington is its partner, not its rival.

He came directly from Singapore, where he and other Asia-Pacific leaders pledged to revamp the world economy but scuppered hopes that key climate change talks next month would end in a pact.

In a speech on Asia policy in Tokyo on Saturday, Obama said the United States welcomed China's rising political and economic clout.

"The United States does not seek to contain China, nor does a deeper relationship with China mean a weakening of our bilateral alliances," he said.

"On the contrary, the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations."

Washington has angered China in recent months by imposing tariffs on Chinese tyres and preliminary duties on some steel products -- moves which Beijing has slammed as protectionist and as impeding world recovery.

Obama is expected to counter by again urging China to reconsider the value of the yuan, which has been effectively pegged to the dollar since July 2008, when the global crisis hit key export markets for Chinese-made goods.

Washington has stopped short of calling China a currency manipulator, but has urged Beijing to relax its exchange rate regime, hinting that it keeps the value of the yuan artificially low to boost exports.

Environmental activists had held out high hopes that Obama and Hu, whose countries are the world's top two emitters of greenhouse gases, would reach some kind of climate change deal before global talks in Copenhagen next month.

But that seemed unlikely after Asia-Pacific leaders conceded in Singapore that they would not reach a binding pact in the Danish capital.

Obama, criticised at home for not meeting the Dalai Lama during the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader's recent visit to Washington, has vowed to raise human rights issues with Beijing, but said he would do it without "rancour".

He and Hu were also expected to discuss the controversial nuclear programmes of North Korea and Iran.

Obama enjoys great popularity in China, especially among the youth in the world's most populous nation of 1.3 billion people.

"I want to encourage my son to learn from him and his fighting spirit to reach his goal," office worker Zhang Yan said Sunday at Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in Shanghai, where people posed with a replica of the US leader.

"Obama is probably the most eloquent leader we have ever known."

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