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The White House and Chinese Bloggers

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, January 21 2011

With eyes this week on Chinese President Hu Jintao's state visit to Washington, the Obama White House quietly rolled out a live videoconference hook-up between officials with the National Security Council and a group of folks that Beijing has had a fraught relationship with: Chinese bloggers.

Last night, the NSC's communications advisor Ben Rhodes and area specialist Jeff Bader spent more than an hour, starting at 8 p.m. Washington time, engaged in conversation with seven bloggers in a discussion moderated by the U.S. embassy Beijing's Deputy Chief of Mission, Robert Wong. No word yet from the White House on how this particular group of bloggers came together, but this wasn't a gathering of shrinking violets. One blogger, Michael Anti (a.k.a. Zhao Jing) got the world's attention in 2005 when his blogging in favor of free speech drew China's attention and got him kicked of his Microsoft blogging platform. Another participant, Rao Jin, runs a forum called Anti-CNN that's focused on what's perceived as anti-China bias in the western media.

This discussion stayed generally polite, with Anti kicking off the conversation by asking Bader about a report earlier this month by the Washington Post's Josh Rogin that had Bader leaving his post after Hu Jintao's visit.

"One of the reasons we so value freedom of the press in the United States," said Bader, "is that when someone writes something foolish, wrong, and stupid, someone else can correct it." In other words, said Bader, he's staying in his post, no matter what the Post says.

Asked by another blogger about China's role in the hacking into Google's computer systems, said Bader, "we believe that hacking into anyone else's computer, any corporations intellectual property is a bad thing." Bader wouldn't respond directly to whether NSC believes China involved, but added, "it was an extraordinary intrusive and wide-ranging attack."

Rhodes used that exchange to lay out the Obama administration's take on online freedoms, and seemed to through his weight behind the "Internet freedom" approach laid out by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The question on the White House's mind, said Rhodes, is "how do we support the freedom of the Internet as a space for dialogue?"

And beyond the ability to speak freely online, said Rhodes, the Obama administration in interested in supporting efforts to give citizens the ability to tell their government what they need and want.

"One of the things we have been emphasizing as it relates to human rights is the right of people to have that tool [i.e., the Internet] to be able to communicate with one another and to be able to express themselves," said Rhodes. "But also that they can use the Internet to empower themselves to have better and more efficient government."