President Obama, Can We Twitter?

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
By CBS News' Robert Hendin and Marsha Cooke

(SHANGHAI, China) One of more interesting moments in today's first ever Presidential town hall in China, came when President Obama was asked about Twitter and freedom of expression over the Internet. China is the world's biggest user of the Internet, with more people online here than any other country in the world. But since July, the Chinese government has blocked the popular social-networking sites Twitter and Facebook, to tamp down on criticism after the riots in the Xinjiang province.

The question came, guess what, over the Internet to the U.S. embassy here. Ambassador Jon Huntsman read the question posed via the Internet: "In a country with 350 million Internet users and 60 million bloggers, do you know of the firewall?... should we be able to use Twitter freely?"

The President took the opportunity to hit China on the issue of human rights, specifically the freedom of expression, but not without a little humor first.

"Let me say that I have never used Twitter," he said. "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."

Transcript: Obama's Town Hall in China
Photo Essay: Obama in China
At Shanghai Forum, Obama Stresses Freedoms
Access to Obama Remarks Blocked in China

He went on to say that criticism of his policies in the U.S. makes him a better leader.

"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," Mr. Obama said.

Finally, he answered the question: "So I'm a big supporter of not restricting Internet use, Internet access, other information technologies like Twitter. The more open we are, the more we can communicate." (Read the transcript of the entire town hall here.>)

How did that play answer play among the hyper-plugged in Chinese elite? Our CBS News Beijing bureau surfed the Web this morning and found some Twitter-like posts through various non-blocked sites. The following are a sampling of some of the Chinese responses to the President. Some are quite funny, some are quite serious:

Mranti posts: "Except for the Internet Freedom Q&A, Obama's Shanghai Town Hall has failed miserably."

Lianyue writes: "The truthful question re: Internet saved Obama."

Uponsnow: "Obama talking about freedoms and Chinese students looking nervous as if getting caught watching porn."

Wangpei: "Obama wants to address to the future of China. No, Mr. President, they just a bunch of youth cadres."

Sumomojean: "Second questioner is Huang Lihe, secreatry of Communist Youth League at Tongji University."

Mywc: "during the dialogue, Chinese people were "represented" four times, Taiwanese once. The only one who has the right to represent American people did so zero time."

Finally, Wenyunchao : "More than 30 Chinese websites republished Xinhua's (the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Government) transcript of Obama's answer re: Internet censorship."

More from Robert Hendin traveling with President Obama in Asia:

U.S., China Fuel Each Other's Bad Habits
Inside the Japanese White House
For Obama in Asia, Focus Will be Economy


Robert Hendin is a CBS News White House producer. Marsha Cooke is CBS News' Asia bureau chief.