Chinese students, netizens and shops welcome Obama to Shanghai

Among students, shopkeepers and Internet users, President Obama’s visit to Shanghai has been among the most anticipated by a foreign leader to China in recent years.

“I have a very good impression of Obama,” said Shanghai resident Jiang Heting, 21. “Even though I’ve read that some Americans disapprove of how he’s handling the economic crisis, I still like him very much.”

They also recognize China’s growing power and influence in the international stage.

“This is the first time that China and America will talk as equals,” said Zhang Shun, a student at East China University of Political Science and Law.

Obama arrived here today as part of his weeklong swing through Asia, the heart of which will be nearly three days in China. Later today in Shanghai, China’s commercial capital, Obama is scheduled to take questions from students in a town-hall-style meeting that is expected to be broadcast live in the city and on the White House website.

The state-run International Herald Leader newspaper teamed up with online discussion forum Tianya Club and collected more than 3,000 questions for the president from netizens over the last month. The submissions touched upon such diverse topics as America’s ability to repay its debt and the president’s love for basketball.

At the same time, some Chinese bloggers are waging a “Tear Down This Firewall” campaign, hoping that the president will address the issue of freedom of speech on the Internet.

“To what degree he can help Chinese netizens break down the ‘Great Firewall of China’ is still uncertain,” blogger Zhang Ping said. “I feel that some Chinese netizens have set their hopes too high and am afraid that they’ll be disappointed.”

Zhang left his position as deputy editor of China’s Southern Metropolis Weekly in 2008 after writing an opinion piece on Tibet for the Financial Times.

Some banned foreign websites such as Picasa have recently been unblocked, though YouTube, Blogspot, Facebook and Twitter are still accessible only through a proxy.

For many business owners, Obama’s arrival has been a source of profit. Shirts, bags and shoes carrying the president’s image have popped up like wildflowers at street stalls and small shops.

Madame Tussauds wax museum in Shanghai replaced the statue of Chinese track superstar Liu Xiang in its lobby with an Obama wax figure Friday, attracting flocks of people taking turns at a photograph.

Beijing artist Liu Bolin created a bronze statue of Obama as a tribute to his popularity.

A Beijing entrepreneur’s “Oba Mao” T-shirts and bags that feature Obama’s face superimposed over that of Mao Tse-tung in a 1940s Red Guard uniform have been hot sellers with tourists ever since the president was elected.

But some shopkeepers got calls last week from the Beijing municipal government demanding a temporary halt on selling the shirts until the president’s visit is over, a local paper reported.

According to the paper, one stall operator said three inspection officers visited him in person to make sure the T-shirts were off the shelf.

Yung is a special correspondent.