REPORTING FROM BEIJING -- Chinese Internet users have been relishing a rare opportunity to let loose and communicate directly with a top political leader.
No, not a Chinese leader: President Obama. An apparent rare breach in the firewall that prevents Chinese from using social media like Facebook and Twitter has allowed thousands of messages from Chinese Internet users to be posted on Obama's Google+ account.
Since late February, more than 90% of the postings on the Obama page have been from Chinese users. The enthusiastic participants have given their movement the moniker “Occupy Obama.”
“Everybody comes to talk to Mr. Obama because it is easier to talk to him than to Chairman Hu and Premier Wen,” one Chinese participant wrote, referring to Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.
The movement took off Feb. 20 when Internet users discovered that, whether by design or oversight, censors had lifted the block on Google+. Along with Facebook and Twitter, it is usually impossible to access Google+ from China without a proxy server or virtual private network.
Most of the postings on Obama’s site have been friendly greetings, jokes and even a marriage proposal. But there is serious commentary as well.
"I apologize to the Syrian people; the Chinese government doesn’t represent the Chinese people,” a user wrote, referring to China’s veto of a U.N. resolution against the Syrian government.
People have also asked for the release of Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, a writer, and Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer who is under house arrest.
The comments have been almost uniformly free of the vitriol that often rages on the Internet. And, to the extent that harsh sentiments have been expressed, the criticism has been more often directed at the Chinese government. One user did write that it was disappointing to see how "weak" Obama was on the issue of human rights in China.
Chinese citizens have few opportunities to send messages to their own leaders. One notable exception is Wen, the premier, who took nonsensitive questions in Internet chat sessions in 2009 and 2011.
The unblocking “opens a rare window for Chinese,” said Zhao Jing, a well-known blogger based in Beijing, who also writes under the pen name Michael Anti. “It shows how eager the Chinese are to connect to the world, including the Western governments.” He said it was not unusual for a banned site to become suddenly available, often for technical reasons, like the change of an IP address.
Even after the site was blocked after five days of open access, Chinese users have kept up the Occupy Obama movement, using virtual private networks that allow them to jump the firewall.
“Obama, you should send a message to Xi Jinping. The Chinese people want American-style democracy," wrote one user, referring to China's vice president, who met with Obama in mid-February and is expected to replace Hu as president later this year. "If he doesn’t believe it, he should hold a referendum.’’
-- John Lee and Barbara Demick
Photo: Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping says goodbye after a visit to the farm of Rick and Martha Kimberley near Maxwell, Iowa, on Feb. 16, during a U.S. tour. Credit: Steve Pope / EPA