Information should be free, students told
Amid the US president's diplomatic rhetoric on peace and collaboration, he made a carefully worded defence of human rights and firm advocacy of the free flow of information.
Addressing university students in Shanghai yesterday, Barack Obama said his nation was founded on the ideal that 'all men and women are created equal' and that they had the right to certain inalienable liberties.
'These freedoms of expression and worship - of access to information and political participation - we believe are universal rights,' he said. 'They should be available to all people, including religious and ethnic minorities - whether they be in America, China or any other nation.'
Obama spoke at length on internet freedom, which he said 'makes our democracy stronger'.
'In the US, the fact that we have free internet access is a source of strength,' he said.
The question asking for the president's views on the mainland's infamous firewall was posted online, but was read by US ambassador to China, John Huntsman. All three other online questions were selected and read by university students.
'I have never used Twitter,' Obama said, referring to the popular networking site, which is one of many blocked on the mainland. 'But I am a big believer in technology and a big believer in openness when it comes to the free flow of information. I think that the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes.'
Obama said he was a 'big supporter of non-censorship' and the internet had been a tool of empowerment for ordinary people.
'Citizens around the world can hold their own governments accountable. They can begin to think freely, and this benefits creativity,' he said. 'I am a big supporter of not restricting internet use, internet access and other technologies like Twitter. The more open we are, the more we communicate, and it also helps to bring us together.'
Obama admitted there were times he was tempted to silence dissent, but he said society ultimately benefited. 'I have a lot of critics in the US who can say all kinds of things about me, but I believe that makes our democracy stronger. It forces me to hear opinions that I don't want to hear. That forces me to examine what I am doing on a daily basis.'
But he conceded there was also a 'downside to technology', in that criminals and terrorist organisations could use the web to plan and co- ordinate their activities. 'There is some price you pay for openness. There is no denying that. But I think the good outweighs the bad.'
However, Obama said it would be wrong for the US to preach to the world about human rights and equality without recognising its own faults.
'We are not perfect, and we have a lot of progress yet to make,' he said, talking about gender equality.
He said the path to the realisation of universal freedoms had been long and gradual. 'It took time for women to get the right to vote,' he said.
Developed countries should lead by example to set a new minimum standard for liberties, he said.
'Despite the fact that it happened in countries all around the world, including the United States, we have developed to a point where no countries should be allowing the exploitation of children or women,' he said.
And he said it was a testament to how much progress had been made that 'someone like me, who less than 50 years ago would have had difficulty voting in some parts of America, can now be that country's president'.