Barack Obama knows the power of new media to alter a political landscape. His shrewd command of advanced technology helped an unseasoned freshman senator with a funny name get elected president.
That's why his trip to China was disappointing. Yes, he held a town-hall meeting with students in Shanghai.
And yes, he answered a question by saying, "Unrestricted Internet access is a source of strength, and I think should be encouraged."
But his whole performance was too tepid and timid. He seemed more interested in sidestepping conflict than speaking clearly. He failed to challenge Beijing's rulers to open their borders, and their brains, to new ideas. He even made a rhetorical bow in their direction by saying, "I recognize that different countries have different traditions."
True, but we're not talking about food or music or even religion here. The "different traditions" in question are political repression and conformity, a relentless determination to strangle "unrestricted Internet access" and deprive Chinese citizens of basic human rights. The joke in China is that the Communist regime has built a "Great Firewall" around the country to ward off foreign sources of information.
That's a crime to be denounced, not a "tradition" to be respected. But never did the president say to his Chinese counterpart, "Tear down that firewall, Mr. Hu."
For many years now, American presidents have operated on the assumption that more contacts, more talk and more openness would enlarge the freedom of Chinese citizens and enhance the accountability of Chinese leaders. Even ardent exponents of that policy (including us) have to admit it has had only marginal success. But it remains a policy worth pursuing -- with every repressive regime, not just Beijing -- and Obama understands that.
From the outset of his presidency, Obama has conducted a concerted campaign to reach past the autocratic governments of the Muslim world and connect directly with ordinary citizens, particularly the young.
In March, he sent a conciliatory message to the people of Iran on the occasion of Nowruz, the traditional Persian New Year. Then he held an extraordinary town-hall meeting in Istanbul that was widely promoted on Turkish social-networking sites; and he gave a speech in Cairo, hailing a "new beginning" with the Muslim world that was translated into 14 languages (from Arabic and Urdu to Pashto and Punjabi).
The Shanghai event was a logical extension of that earlier outreach, but it came up short. Communist officials handpicked the crowd. Only a few questions were allowed. The New York Times reported that all participants were subjected to four days of "training" and prohibited from asking about sensitive topics such as Tibet.
More seriously, Beijing severely limited the range of the president's words. No national network, only local Shanghai TV, carried the event live. Bloggers inside China said that a full transcript posted on a popular Web portal, NetEase, was taken down within a half-hour.
But the biggest problem was the president's failure to seize the moment. One question, submitted via the Web and read by Ambassador Jon Huntsman, asked if Obama knew about the "firewall" thwarting Internet access and added, "Should we be able to Twitter freely?"
The proper response would have been one simple, stunning word: "Yes." Instead, the president danced around the question and never answered it directly. He talked at length about America but never about China, and one sentence was particularly ironic: "The truth is that because ... 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 I don't want to hear."
Even the fiercest firewall is not perfect, and some clever computer geeks within China heard the president and appreciated the moment. China Digital Times, which monitors the Chinese Web from the safety of California, reported this Twitter posting: "I will not forget this morning, I heard, on my shaky Internet connection, a question about our own freedom which only a foreign leader can discuss."
And the White House hopes that the "long tail" of the Internet will come into play here, with individual users now sending transcripts and videos of the president's remarks to each other -- the same way Obama's supporters communicated during the campaign.
That's all to the good. But they will hear a professor, not a preacher. Obama never told the Chinese leaders what they didn't want to hear.