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16november20093In an historic first for an American President, Barack Obama held a town hall forum with hundreds of Chinese university students yesterday in Shanghai at the city's Museum of Science and Technology.

The meeting opened with the President admitting to U.S. having had conflict with China in the past, but optimistically asserted that such problems need not dictate the course of future dialogue. Using the same careful rhetoric that characterized his speech in Tokyo last week prior to his arrival in China, he maintained that the purpose of his trip was not to take the political high ground and chastise the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for its ideological differences.  "We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation."

Though he steered clear of referring directly to marginalized religious and ethnic groups as his foreign advisors prefaced he would, the President did, however, address the curtailing of rights that has been a long-standing sticking point between Beijing and Washington.  "The freedoms of expression and worship, of access to information and political participation, we believe are universal rights." He continued, "They should be available to all people, including ethnic or religious minorities, whether they are in the United States, China or any other nation."

Many critics of the President feel that he is compromising human rights at the expense of maintaining favorable economic relations with China.  In a letter released last week, Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, asked that the President raise three key issues with Chinese leaders, one of which being "Tibet and Xinjiang," two regions where minority groups -Tibetan Buddhists and Muslim Uighers - have been labeled "cults" by the CCP and targeted for systematic reeducation.

Despite the fact that the state-run Xinhua news agency announced it would broadcast the event live online, it instead ran a transcription without video.  Shanghai TV news did broadcast the event live, though the network has limited reach throughout the region, and offered minimal promotion of it.

Though nothing in his language conveyed specific disapproval of the Chinese government, the President did allude to the CCP's practice of punishing political dissenters.  As a politician, while he may feel threatened by criticism, he admitted "it makes me a better leader...It forces me to hear things I don't want to hear."

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