Barack Obama began his maiden China visit by speaking out against censorship, and telling China to encourage “universal rights” and the freedom of information.

The United States President also stressed Washington “did not want to contain China”, reiterating his administration’s foreign policy view which he outlined last week in Tokyo and Singapore. “More is to be gained when great powers cooperate than when they collide,” he said. “The notion we must be adversaries is not predestined.”

But on Monday, attention was on Mr. Obama’s comments on two sensitive issues for this country’s leaders — censorship and human rights.

Mr. Obama said the “freedoms of expression and worship, of access to information and political participation” were “universal rights”, and “should be available to all people, including ethnic and religious minorities, whether they are in the United States, China or any other nation”.

He cautiously phrased his words, not directly criticising the Chinese government and stressing that the U.S. did not “seek to impose any system of government on any other nation”.

China is widely criticised by human rights groups for restricting religious and political freedoms. Most media here are state-controlled and tightly regulated, and China censors numerous websites that discuss politically-sensitive issues.

Mr. Obama was speaking at an event which Chinese authorities had in the first place expressed strong reservations about — a somewhat unscripted question and answer session with college students in Shanghai. The event was approved only after last-minute negotiations.

It was not broadcast on public television in China, and was only accessible through the White House website.

China’s state-run media last week asked China’s Internet users to submit their questions, and received more than 3,000. The U.S. embassy also invited questions to ensure that all questions were not screened by China’s authorities, an official said.

Asked for his views on China’s Internet restrictions, one of eight questions Mr. Obama fielded, he said he was a big supporter of non-censorship and free access to information. “The more freely information flows, the stronger a society becomes,” he said. “Then, citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable, and can begin to think for themselves.” In a remark ostensibly directed at China’s leaders, he said there were times when he wished information did not flow freely — on occasions he was criticised — but said it made him a better leader.

Mr. Obama’s comments are likely to displease Beijing, which has in the past strongly objected to U.S. criticism of its human rights record and censorship policies, maintaining they were “internal affairs”. Human rights issues are expected to figure during Mr. Obama’s Tuesday meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, though they are far down the list of priorities. Economic issues are top of the agenda. The two leaders will discuss cooperation in tackling the financial crisis and the series of trade disputes that has surfaced in recent weeks. Mr. Obama will also press for Chinese support in dealing with the nuclear issues in Iran and North Korea.

The two leaders are expected to announce an agreement on greater cooperation on clean energy.

More In: International | News