As President Obama spoke in Shanghai to four hundred-plus Chinese youth, many thousands more young (and not so young) people throughout China attended the event virtually in classrooms, coffee houses, living rooms, and at “watch parties” organized by the U.S. Embassy and Consulates. Some events were hosted by Fulbright professors or Chinese exchange program alumni who had taught or studied in the U.S. Others were organized by Embassy or Consulate contacts. The vast majority, however, were simply groups of interested Chinese citizens and netizens who tuned in on their own.
In Beijing, a capacity crowd of 135 law students and honors undergraduate students watched the President at the U.S. Embassy, while another 40 students watched at the American Center. Similar events at the U.S. Consulates in Chengdu and Guangzhou drew capacity crowds for the live event, while additional discussion sessions will be held later this evening and in the coming days.
In the discussion after the Embassy event, several students said they found the concept of a “town hall” interesting and refreshing. One Chinese law student commented that he was favorably surprised that the President mentioned the importance of free speech and open internet access in such a public forum. Another said she was honored that President Obama took the time to engage China’s students in such an open and lively dialogue. At another Embassy-sponsored watch party, the town hall engendered a lively discussion on civil rights and the differences between U.S. and Chinese media.
In the days and weeks ahead we will continue this conversation with Chinese youth. It’s clear from their initial reaction that they’re ready to talk.
Thomas F. Skipper is the Minister Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing