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President Barack Obama has held a question and answer session with Chinese students in Shanghai - China's commercial capital. Mr. Obama pushed the importance of freedom of information, while at the same time calling for greater cooperation between Washington and Beijing
The townhall meeting amounted to a delicate balancing act for Barack Obama.
He opened the session with university students by striking a professorial tone, talking about the history of relations between Washington and Beijing, and the importance of working together to tackle global challenges. Mr. Obama said, "We know that more is to be gained when great powers cooperate than when they collide."
Obama Underscores Freedom
The president talked about respect for cultures and traditions, saying one country should not impose its system of government on another. But at the same time, he made clear he will stand up for the basic freedoms Americans hold dear, saying, "These freedoms of expression and worship, of access to information and political participation, we believe are universal rights. They should be available to all people."
Mr. Obama was speaking in a country with the largest number of internet and cell phone users in the world. But the Chinese government has restricted access to certain social networking and news Web sites. When a student asked about the so-called "firewall," the president spoke out, saying, "I am a big believer in technology and I am a big believer in openness when it comes to the free flow of information."
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The U.S. president said he is a strong supporter of unfettered Internet access, adding, "I think the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable, they can begin to think for themselves."
During the session with students, the president took several questions submitted on the Internet, and the entire program was carried live on the White House Web site. It was also broadcast locally in Shanghai, but not on Chinese national television.
While the president stressed the benefits of new media, he acknowledged there is a downside. Mr. Obama said, "It also means that terrorists are able to organize on the Internet in ways that they might not have been able to do before."
Obama Discusses Terrorism
Mr. Obama returned to the topic of terrorism when the final questioner asked about his pending decision on a revised strategy for the war in Afghanistan.
The president did not go into specific options under consideration, except to indicate that training Afghans to provide their own security is a priority. Instead, he talked about the greater threat facing the United States and the world.
The president said, "I do continue to believe that the greatest threat to United States security are the terrorist networks like al-Qaida. And the reason is because even though they aresmall in number what they have showed is that they have no conscience when it comes to the destruction of innocent civilians."
Mr. Obama remained for a few minutes at the end of the event, shaking hands and chatting with some of the students in the audience. After his opportunity to interact with the Chinese people - in person and on the internet - he headed to Beijing for talks with the nation's leaders.