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In Obama Interview, Signs of China’s Heavy Hand

November 20, 2009

By Sharon LaFraniere
New York Times
November 19, 2009

BEIJING -- President Obama spent part of his last
morning in Beijing giving an interview to
Southern Weekly, a newspaper in southern China’s
Guangdong province known for its
press-the-envelope approach to the government’s ever-present censorship.

But if the White House expected a hard-hitting
article that showcased the United States’
commitment to press freedom, it must have been
disappointed when the newspaper hit the stands Thursday morning.

Mr. Obama was quoted talking about basketball.
His other comments about trade, bilateral
relations and China’s rise added virtually
nothing to what he had previously said on his three-day visit.

Yet, as they did throughout the president’s
visit, government authorities appeared to
carefully monitor how his words were transmitted to China’s public.

Publication of the newspaper was held up late
into the night, said one of its journalists, who
asked not to be named for fear of retribution.
The page that contained the interview was missing
completely from the edition delivered to Western
news outlets in Beijing. An employee of the
paper’s reader services department said the
article on Mr. Obama delayed several pages in
front section past the deadline for Beijing delivery.

The weekly’s Web site did not display the
interview with any prominence, and China’s
primary Internet portals appeared to ignore it.
“It is not like whatever Obama says is news,"
said Yu Wei, an editor of Sohu.com.

In a telephone interview, Michael Anti, a
prominent Chinese blogger and an advocate of greater press freedom here, said

"This result is no surprise to us. Maybe Obama
didn’t understand that all the high officials of
the so-called free media are appointed by the party."

Zhang Zhe, the reporter who attended the
12-minute interview, declined to answer questions
about whether government censors were involved in
either formulating questions for the Mr. Obama or
reviewing the paper. The weekly’s editor in
chief, Xiang Xi, said he was too busy to answer questions.

In an interview with Shanghai-based China
Business News, however, Mr. Xiang did not present
himself as an independent journalist. “Since
Obama chose us, then Southern Weekly must
represent Chinese national interests to raise
questions or to confirm,” he told the newspaper.

The Southern Weekly apparently caught the White
House’s eye because of its reputation for
exclusives and a liberal bent. But propaganda
officials in the past few years have sought to
install more loyal editors and also warned
Internet news portals not to pick up sensitive stories from the weekly.

Moreover, this week showed that China’s
authorities are determined to oversee the shaping
of Mr. Obama’s public image here. They rejected a
White House request to nationally broadcast Mr.
Obama’s Monday town hall-style meeting in
Shanghai. Mr. Obama’s joint press conference with
President Hu Jintao Tuesday was broadcast, but no questions were allowed.

Mr. Anti said Southern Weekly blew its chance to
tell its 1.5 million readers more. In his first
three questions, Mr. Obama was asked how felt
about his first visit to China, whether he still
had time to play basketball, and how he sees
China-U.S. cooperation in the region.

"They just talked about nothing," he said. "Just empty talk."

Mr. Xiang, the weekly’s editor, portrayed it
differently to the Shanghai newspaper. "Obama
didn’t shun any question or hedge in a
politician’s tone," he said. "Of course, we
didn’t hold back, asking all the questions that should be asked."

Jonathan Ansfield contributed reporting and Zhang
Jing and Li Bibo contributed research.
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