U.S. And China Still Jockey Over Obama’s Speaking Plans

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As Obama plans to depart for Alaska, the first leg of his week-long, four-nation trip to Asia, U.S. and Chinese officials are still negotiating the terms of Obama’s address to Chinese youth in Shanghai, reports TIME’s Beijing Correspondent Austin Ramzy. (Stateside, White House officials have so far been vague about the arranged speaking conditions.)

Ramzy files this dispatch from China:

President Obama wants to speak directly to the Chinese people during his visit to Shanghai and Beijing next week. Just how directly he will be able to communicate is unclear. Obama’s schedule calls for a town hall-style meeting in Shanghai, where he will speak with university students and answer their questions. The U.S. would like for the event to be broadcast live and carried by Chinese web portals, possibly with questions submitted online and chosen by Chinese journalism students. Chinese officials are nervous about giving anyone, especially a charismatic American president, such a direct channel to the masses. The two countries are still discussing the format of next Monday’s event, and whether it will be broadcast live and uncensored, even as Obama prepares to leave for Asia. It is the last major piece of his China visit that hasn’t been confirmed, and the talks could go down to the wire

The back and forth over Obama’s town hall plans follows a longstanding pattern of visits by American leaders to China. Presidents as far back as Ronald Reagan have asked to speak directly to the Chinese people. Usually the government keeps a tight grip on what is disseminated to the general public. In 1984 the White House complained when state-run China Central Television (CCTV) cut portions of a speech by Reagan referring to the Soviet Union, religion and democracy. In 2004 an address by Vice President Dick Cheney was broadcast nationally, but without any advance notice, limiting the potential audience. And during Obama’s inaugural speech this year, CCTV cut away when he talked about how previous generations had faced down communism.

The possibilities vary widely. On his visit to Moscow this summer, Obama gave a major address to the Russian people at the New Economic School, but Russian authorities limited broadcast of the speech, privately disappointing some White House officials. By contrast, Obama’s major addresses in Ghana and Cairo were widely carried by regional media, an effect that was echoed by online outreach efforts coordinated through the White House and the State Department.

There is little doubt that both China and the United States will put on a big show of their close relationship during Obama’s visit, with lots of smiling photo ops and at least one positive joint statement. Exactly how close the relationship actually is, however, will be shown in other ways–like whether or not the Chinese authorities give Obama significant access to their nation’s airwaves.