As President Obama spoke at an unprecedented Town Hall in China, he fielded questions from students in the room and from submissions sent online, opening up on his thoughts on everything from terrorism to what it takes to affect global change. One question stood above the others in its meaning for the future of China's policies.
Asked about whether he thought the Chinese firewall was a good idea and whether Chinese people should be able to use Twitter, the president responded: "I have never used Twitter. My thumbs are too clumsy. But I'm a big believer in technology." While that question got a lot of attention on Twitter from some who were surprised and most others who never really assumed Obama did use the site himself, at the heart of the question was Internet censorship.
"I'm a big supporter of not restricting Internet use, Internet access, Twitter," Obama said. He used his own daughters as an example, citing that they can go online and learn about Shanghai; he also admitted the dangers of the Internet and how it can be used for ill as well as good. He spoke about how terrorists can use the Web to gain support (to which he later explained that there are ways to reduce terrorist recruitment). Mainly, he emphasized what the Internet has provided in terms of the ability to have clear dialogue and access to as much information as possible.
Obama spoke about Google and how without the Internet, that kind of innovation could never have happened. He spoke about his campaign and how much the Internet helped him reach people as a candidate. It was an unscripted moment in his presidency, carrying a comfortable tone of friendship toward the Chinese students.
In 1989, a year before the Berlin wall fell, I traveled to the U.S.S.R. and met as a student delegate with Russian students - all screened by the Communist party. While they were barred from discussing much of consequence, Western culture thrilled the Russian people I met on my own - especially music. The parallels of that time - how media was controlled through propagandist publications like Pravda, and how Western culture played a role in breaking down the Berlin wall - I hope will not be lost now as China considers its own firewall and the promise of the open Internet.
The message the president sent, however subtly, to the people of China was that he hopes they obtain the same freedoms of information access that we have in the United States. Twitter has played a major role internationally with respect to natural disasters, elections and wars. This could be a big test. It's not impossible to tweet from China. What remains to be seen is whether the power of the people using social media can break down the virtual wall.