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U.S. Ambassador To China Discusses Open Communications, Open Government At China's Search Giant Baidu

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, April 2 2012

Baidu International Communications Director Kaiser Kuo, Baidu Bear and U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke at Baidu in Beijing, China.

Social media is an integral part of U.S. diplomacy in China, said the U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke on Friday during a townhall meeting with the employees of China's most popular search engine Baidu. The comment came just one day before Chinese authorities themselves cracked down on commercial Chinese social media services by blocking the ability to comment on the country's most popular microblogging sites, and closing down several web sites and detaining six individuals.

"We monitor all the different internet sites and what people are talking about, and the most searched ideas or conversations," Locke said during the meeting, according to a transcript of the event posted online by the U.S. embassy. "And thanks to I think what we've been posting from the embassy, people have learned that the air is very polluted and have used that information to push the Beijing government to also report on the air quality," Locke said.

He said that he was generally learning that Chinese citizens are "wanting more accountability, transparency, ethics in government."

Locke's reference to air quality in Beijing was actually a nod to the U.S. embassy's Twitter feed @BeijingAir, which has been broadcasting hourly updates of the air quality in Beijing since at least 2009. The Twitter feed comes from air quality gauges positioned on top of the embassy, and had started providing information glossed over by the Chinese authorities. The particle matter measured by the Chinese authorities were bigger than the smaller, more damaging matter recorded by the American gauges.

The Twitter feed did seem to spark off a movement among outraged parents and citizens in Beijing. The New York Times reported last December that a parent of a 7-year-old started a public campaign for better air quality reporting from the Chinese government, as did Pan Shiyi, a local real estate magnate on a local microblogging service.

In January, Beijing apparently decided to change direction and publish more accurate readings of air quality and particulate matter, according to The Wall Street Journal. Hong Kong, Shanghai and other regions in China are going to follow suit, according to the Journal.

Locke spoke at length at Baidu on Friday, alongside Baidu Chairman Robin Li, a Chinese native, who graduated from the State University of New York in Buffalo, and who started his career at Dow Jones and Infoseek in the U.S. before moving back to China to start Baidu.

Locke made the comments as part of a more general speech that contained the familiar talking points about the need for China to focus more on enforcing intellectual property law. He also discussed his own family background with its origins in Guangdong province in the southern part of China, and his surprise at the interest of the Chinese in his personal life, which is manifesting itself on the Chinese microblogs.

Photo courtesy Richard Buangan, U.S. press secretary for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.