China takes questions for Obama from Internet users

China's state-run news agency Friday started collecting questions from local Internet users for U.S. President Barack Obama, who is slated to speak to Chinese youth next week during his first visit to the country.

China and the U.S. have appeared to wrangle over the details of the dialogue session, such as whether it will be broadcast live. Obama is scheduled to hold the session in Shanghai next Monday as part of a three-day visit to a country of rising economic and political influence worldwide.

China's Xinhua News Agency opened an online forum for users to submit questions and said the Web site would broadcast the event. Questions that appeared in the forum ranged in tone from innocently curious to accusatory and nationalistic.

"China's total elimination of serfdom [in Tibet] in 1959 was identical in nature to Lincoln's abolition of slavery in the U.S.," one post in the forum read, repeating a comparison made by a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman at a press briefing the previous day. "Mr. Obama, do you plan to meet with the Dalai Lama after leaving China?"

Demands for greater religious and political autonomy in Tibet are among the most hot-button issues in China. Chinese officials often portray the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, as a dangerous separatist, while he is usually seen as a peaceful religious activist in the West.

"Do you really understand our China?" another question read.

Other questions were more personal. "What kind of Chinese name would you pick for yourself?" one post read.

Xinhua did not say if the event would also be broadcast on other Web portals or on TV. When asked earlier this week if the event would be broadcast, Ben Rhodes, a U.S. deputy national security advisor, told reporters that Obama hoped to reach as wide an audience as possible at the session but that details remained to be worked out, according to a transcript of his comments.

A representative at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said a final decision on the format of the event still had not been reached.

Chinese leaders including President Hu Jintao have held rare online chats with Chinese Internet users in an apparent attempt to boost the government's image.

Chinese authorities heavily police the Internet for sensitive political content, pornography and other material deemed harmful. Local Internet companies are expected to erase sensitive comments that appear on blogs or other parts of their Web sites and can face punishment for failing to do so.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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