President Obama Tells Chinese Students Unrestricted Internet Access Makes the U.S. Stronger, Free Speech Makes Him a Better Leader

From Jake Tapper/ Yunji de Nies/ Stephanie Smith/ Sunlen Miller/ Karen Travers/ Jon Garcia/ Ann Compton

SHANGHAI, CHINA -- At the Museum of Science and Technology Monday afternoon, President Obama took questions from a docile audience of more than 400 Chinese university students handpicked by officials of eight different Chinese universities.

Most of the questions were gushing and fairly unchallenging, but an interesting one came via the U.S. Embassy website, read by U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman.

"In a country with 350 million Internet users and 60 million bloggers, do you know of the firewall?" Huntsman asked. "And second, 'Should we be able to use Twitter freely?'"

Communist Censors prevent Chinese citizens from accessing many websites, including social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as news sites.

Whether or not the president had been expecting that precise question, he reacted like someone who had something he wanted to say.

"I have never used Twitter," the president said. "My thumbs are too clumsy to type in things on the phone. But I am a big believer in technology and I'm a big believer in openness when it comes to the flow of information. I think that 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. That generates new ideas. It encourages creativity."

The president said he's "always been a strong supporter of open Internet use. I'm a big supporter of non-censorship. This is part of the tradition of the United States that I discussed before, and I recognize that different countries have different traditions. I can tell you that in the United States, the fact that we have...unrestricted Internet access is a source of strength, and I think should be encouraged."

Seemingly making an attempt at humor that didn't necessarily translate well into Mandarin, Mr. Obama said that "I should be honest, as President of the United States, there are times where I wish information didn't flow so freely because then I wouldn't have to listen to people criticizing me all the time."

He then turned to a more serious point, saying, "I think people naturally,...when they're in positions of power sometimes think, 'Oh, how could that person say that about me,' or 'That's irresponsible.'…But the truth is that because in the United States information is free, and I have a lot of critics in the United States who can say all kinds of things about me, I actually think that that makes our democracy stronger and it makes me a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don't want to hear. It forces me to examine what I'm doing on a day-to-day basis to see, am I really doing the very best that I could be doing for the people of the United States."

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