November 16th, 2009
08:36 AM ET
5 years ago

Not an ordinary Obama town hall

CNN's Ed Henry is traveling with President Obama in Asia.
CNN's Ed Henry is traveling with President Obama in Asia.

SHANGHAI, China (CNN) - It was the sounds of Springsteen in Shanghai that clinched it for me: This was not your ordinary town hall meeting with President Obama.

Don't get me wrong, Bruce Springsteen is usually a staple at Democratic events in America, so I'm used to hearing the strands of songs like "Born to Run" blaring out of speakers at campaign events or health care forums back home.

But when I showed up a little early for Obama's town hall meeting here on Monday with Chinese college students at the extraordinary Shanghai Science and Technology Museum, the lyrics about New Jersey guys in muscle cars sweating it out "in the streets of a runaway American dream" seemed a little out of place:

"Sprung from cages out on Highway 9/Chrome wheeled, fuel injected and steppin' out over the line!"

Strange because the audience this time was not eager college students in Sarasota shouting "Yes We Can!" in the Democratic presidential primaries. It was subdued Chinese students in Shanghai getting ready for their close-up with the leader of the free world and they were too nervous to sing along with Springsteen because they were getting their questions ready for Obama.

Red, white, and blue American flags had been carefully placed alongside the distinctive red flags for communist China throughout the small amphitheater in the museum. The presidential podium and teleprompter were all set on the stage awaiting the arrival of Obama, who was still a few minutes away because he was wrapping up lunch nearby with local leaders.

So I started chatting up people in the audience, beginning with a 24-year-old female business student working on a Ph.D. who told me she was so excited about the possibility that Obama would call on her. She had carefully prepared an economic question and jotted it down on an index card. Her hand was shaking as she showed me the card with a smile: "I'm really nervous."

Right behind her was a 22-year-old male student who told me that he and many of his colleagues were trying hard to practice their questions in English because they wanted to "prove themselves" to the international television audience.

This male student started telling me how he wanted to ask Obama about why China's higher education system is not doing as well as expected. The student said sincerely, in strong English, that he wanted to know if the President thinks the failures are due to the education system or if the students should be working harder.

It was a hardly a question that the Chinese government would want asked, so I was thinking about how interesting it was that these students living under Communist rule were getting a taste of freedom. As if on cue, a Chinese government official stepped between me and the CNN camera to inform me the interview was over and I should move away from the students. I pushed back but it was clear that pushing on with the interview was going to get the students in trouble so we moved on temporarily and the town hall started.

Obama ended up getting about eight questions and they were mostly softballs from students that didn't really challenge their own government on important issues like human rights. But the president used the forum to push for China to open up the Internet for freedom of expression here. There were also some light moments, such as when Obama was twice asked about his recent award and joked: "Let me tell you that I don't know if there's a curriculum or course of study that leads you to win the Nobel Peace Prize."

After the event ended I checked in with the two students and they were both favorably impressed even though neither got called on. The male student said he appreciated the president's humor but also felt that serious subjects were discussed and would help begin a better dialogue between the two countries.

"I didn't get a chance, but it's okay," the female student said, adding of the conversation: "I think it's very good."

Meanwhile, Obama was working a rope line and shaking hands with students on his way out the door. Suddenly another female student rushed up to him and in pretty good English recited his campaign mantra from last year.

"Yes we can!" Obama repeated, turning to aides with an astonished look. "Did you hear that? She said, 'Yes we can!'"

Between that and Springsteen, maybe this was not that different from an Obama town hall event in America after all.


Filed under: President Obama
soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    Why are we discussing Obama's trip to China? Should'nt we be focusing on important and impacting news makers like Flailin Palin first thing this morning?

    November 16, 2009 08:47 am at 8:47 am |
  2. Sam Sixpack

    Don't worry about China – the nine members of China's all-powerful ruling committee love you long time. Now go back to work.

    November 16, 2009 08:57 am at 8:57 am |
  3. Yes, He Can

    I love President Obama.

    November 16, 2009 09:00 am at 9:00 am |
  4. Peace

    "Obama ended up getting about eight questions and they were mostly softballs from students that didn't really challenge their own government on important issues like human rights"
    Hey, Senior Whitehouse Correspondent; You remember only one question from eight which was asked twice! Is this not like the answer we once heard from the former Governor, "I have read all of them(magazines) which were brought to me"! without mentioning even one of the magazines.

    November 16, 2009 09:05 am at 9:05 am |
  5. g

    america like china has hand picked human rights

    November 16, 2009 09:09 am at 9:09 am |
  6. PAUL W

    What, he had a town hall meeting to a without the audience being prescreened? Dang, Obama must be the bravest man alive. Or maybe the GOP have just lowered the bar so much that I'm impressed by seemingly small feats.

    November 16, 2009 09:10 am at 9:10 am |
  7. Millie McGuire

    –same old Obama bull, pushing the screeching American wild kid program when the Chinese young are not cultured that way. We have a sincerely crazy man in the white house, folks, who sees only himself, not the US, in his plans.

    November 16, 2009 09:15 am at 9:15 am |
  8. Matt Shine

    It's nice that with all of the politcal ramblings back home in DC, that hope that Obama spread back in 2008 is still alive and well in some parts of the world.

    I support our President, voted for him last year and will again in '12.

    November 16, 2009 09:17 am at 9:17 am |
  9. Dan, TX

    Tibet didn't come up. This seems to be a big deal for liberals. Tibet is better off than many other places in the world. Shouldn't we be more concerned about human rights in Mexico? How about helping to fix the problems in our own back yard, something we can control to some extent.

    November 16, 2009 09:22 am at 9:22 am |
  10. Silence Dogoode

    Obama was twice asked about his recent award and joked: "Let me tell you that I don't know if there's a curriculum or course of study that leads you to win the Nobel Peace Prize."
    No kidding!
    Obama seems right at home with the Communists as he is a socialist. The students of China are more for democracy and no government interference than HE is.

    November 16, 2009 09:35 am at 9:35 am |
  11. ck

    So Obama is telling them that there should be no censorship...

    After his very own Anita Dunn bragged that Obama's campaign controlled the media!!

    And the Obama sheep STILL CANT SEE THE HYPOCRISY!!

    LOL LOL LOL

    November 16, 2009 09:43 am at 9:43 am |
  12. I am glad I'm not a Repulse-lican

    GOD, I LOVE THIS MAN!!!!!!!!!

    He make me proud everytime he visits a foreign country because they can see he is a man who is sincere and wants what's best for the entire world especially the US.

    November 16, 2009 09:44 am at 9:44 am |
  13. gary

    How refreshing to have such a class act running the USA. No wonder the repubs are so scared of this guy.

    November 16, 2009 09:44 am at 9:44 am |
  14. haren

    Let us bring back Draft so that we can shut up all war hawks of republican party.
    They wanted to fight whole world on somebody else son and daughters.

    November 16, 2009 09:47 am at 9:47 am |
  15. New Yorker

    "taste of freedom" mark those words. If Obama and his friends have their way our freedom will be the same brand of freedom the Chinese experience which is not freedom at all. The students were nervous because they know if they say one thing against the communist government their lives are at stake. The Chinese government and Obama have one thing in common – they want to pull the wool over your eyes, and they're doing a fantastic job!

    November 16, 2009 09:48 am at 9:48 am |
  16. shirley-atl

    Henry as usual you are not doing your job well. Don't you know Springteen is appropriate anytime, even if like me, you don't always
    understand what he is saying. Young and old around the world like his music. Also, once again our president makes us proud.

    November 16, 2009 10:00 am at 10:00 am |
  17. mjm

    It's amazing how the people of China whish for more freedom while American's vote for less freedom.

    Because the Chinese government pays for everything they think their people need, the people have less of a say and therefore less freedom.

    If you don't know what I mean (Democrats), the Pelosi bill, Baucus bill, and Cap-and Trade leads to less and less freedom because the government is "giving" you everything they think you need.

    Another way to put it..."shut up, we're paying for everything"

    November 16, 2009 10:07 am at 10:07 am |
  18. Bpin

    Why is BHO even in China? Don't we have enough pressing issues in the US? Why is he in China trying to tell them what to do when they are clearly ahead of us in their economy. They are not at war anywhere. Or, maybe it could be that they demanded him to come with a check is his hand because we are past due? Here we are, loosing our creditability in the world more every day and our "leader" is in China ,our landlord, trying to tell them how to manage their building? Go figure.

    November 16, 2009 10:10 am at 10:10 am |
  19. a canuck

    President Obama Is truly a cirizen of the world.....and the best thing to happen since sliced bread.!!!

    November 16, 2009 10:19 am at 10:19 am |
  20. phoenix86

    I guess Obama bowing to the Japanese Emperor is not worthy enough news for the Obama propaganda networks like CNN to report on.

    Shameful. Our president bows to everyone. I guess that gives CNN and their like more chances to kiss Obama's behind.

    November 16, 2009 10:20 am at 10:20 am |
  21. Pat F

    Obama is receiving lectures from the COMMUNIST CHINESE on the values of free-market economics and restrained government spending because he is tanking the dollar, and therefore, the Chinese's investment as well as the world economy. Nixon, Mao and Milton Friedman are somewhere having a good laugh about this.

    I am sure his visit to Japan went something like this: Hi, welcome to Japan. We were a world economic powerhouse until the 1980s. We had a major recession caused by a real estate bubble. We tried to fix it with massive government interference with our robust free market. We ended up destroying our economy beyond all repair, and we never recovered. We are now an economic backwater, and despite our people voting in new government after new government, once the golden goose is gutted, it never resurrects. Sound familiar, Barry?"

    November 16, 2009 10:22 am at 10:22 am |
  22. Keith in Austin

    What an appropriate location-Shanghai!

    Obozo has been Shanghaing the Country since he was elected!

    November 16, 2009 10:45 am at 10:45 am |
  23. dale

    I feel ashamed that america is going around the world promoting "how to ruin a country" china don't want no part of that. Do they have a pelosi or reid? Recipe for desaster

    November 16, 2009 10:45 am at 10:45 am |
  24. S

    Yes. China wons us. Let's sing the praise of China/Chinese and buy some more from Wal-Mart!!!!

    Let's good things keep rolling !!!

    November 16, 2009 10:48 am at 10:48 am |
  25. gary davis Harbor Oregon proud american

    we can only hope that China will let go of the control and threats and fear that is used all over China .. it has worked for thousands of years
    maybe thats were the republicans got the idea to lie and us fear and threats to make people beleive the crap they try to sell us
    Obama is doing a wonderful job as president : :) :)

    November 16, 2009 10:51 am at 10:51 am |