SHANGHAI, China – Pressing for freedoms on China’s own turf, President Barack Obama said today that individual expression is not an American ideal but a universal right that should be available to all.
In his first presidential trip to Asia, Obama lauded cooperative relations with China but sought to send a clear message to his tightly controlled host country. Just as Obama said few problems can be solved unless U.S. and China work together, he prodded China to accept what he called “universal rights.”
“We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation,” Obama said at a town hall at a museum here, believed to be the first such forum held by a U.S. president on Chinese soil. “But we also don’t believe that the principles that we stand for are unique to our nation.”
He added: “These freedoms of expression, and worship, of access to information and political participation – we believe they are universal rights. They should be available to all people, including ethnic and religious minorities, whether they are in the United States, China or any nation.”
Obama sought to find a political balance with China, addressing long-standing U.S. concerns about human rights but extending his hand to a critically important partner on economic and security matters.
“More is gained when great powers cooperate than when they collide,” he said in his opening statement.
In one form or another, though, the theme of free expression kept emerging.
“I’m a big supporter of non-censorship,” Obama said in the course of answering one question about Internet usage.
With a smile, Obama said he has never used the popular social networking site Twitter. But he broadly defended unrestricted Internet access as “a source of strength.” And he said the free flow of information, including criticisms of his presidency, has helped by forcing him to consider other opinions.
One student asked him about the honor and burden of winning the Nobel Peace Prize. He said he is a symbol of the shift in world affairs that his administration is trying to promote, but reiterated that he didn’t think he had deserved the award.
Obama said there are few global challenges that can be solved unless the U.S. and China cooperate.
The president’s first stop in Shanghai was the tranquil grounds of the Xijiao State Guest House, where he met with the city’s mayor for about a half-hour and had lunch.
“Both of the countries have benefited greatly from the progress we have made over the last two decades,” Obama said as the two sides’ vast delegations were arrayed in a giant meeting room.
Thirty years after the start of diplomatic relations between the United States and China, the ties are growing – but remain mixed on virtually every front.
The two nations are working together more than ever on battling global warming, but they still differ deeply over hard targets for reductions in the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause it. China has supported sterner sanctions to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, but it still balks at getting more aggressive about reining in Iran’s uranium enrichment.
China is a huge and lucrative market for American goods and services, and yet it has a giant trade surplus with the U.S. that, like a raft of other economic issues, is a bone of contention between the two governments. The two militaries have increased their contacts, but clashes still happen and the U.S. remains worried about a dramatic buildup in what is already the largest standing army in the world.
Amid all that, Obama has adopted a pragmatic approach that stresses the positive, sometimes earning him criticism for being too soft on Beijing, particularly in the area of human rights abuses and what the U.S. regards as an undervalued Chinese currency that disadvantages U.S. products.
Obama recognizes that a rising China, as the world’s third-largest economy on the way to becoming the second and the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt, has shifted the dynamic more toward one of equals. For instance, Chinese questions about how Washington spending policies will affect the already soaring U.S. deficit and the safety of Chinese investments now must be answered by Washington.
Second, Obama wants not to anger Beijing, but to encourage it to pair its growing economic and political clout with greater leadership in solving some of the most urgent global problems, including a sagging economy, warming planet and the spread of dangerous weapons.
Obama has talked warmly toward China, particularly in the days leading up to his visit.
“The United States does not seek to contain China,” Obama said in a speech from Tokyo on Saturday. “On the contrary, the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations.”
One test of the line Obama is walking on China will be human rights, including religious freedom in the officially atheist nation. Aides said in advance that Obama would raise several human rights issues privately with Chinese leaders, including President Hu Jintao.
But it was unlikely he would repeat those messages too stridently in public, out of concern for angering his hosts. Even before arriving in China, for example, he declined to get specific about human rights concerns with China in his Tokyo speech and eschewed the traditional presidential meeting with the Dalai Lama while he was in Washington in June.
Obama said he would see the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader later, a decision welcomed by Chinese officials who pressure foreign governments not to meet with the Dalai Lama and spurn Tibetans’ desires for autonomy from Chinese rule.