BEIJING - Before his high-profile visit to China last week, Vice President Dick Cheney insisted that Beijing leaders allow him to speak, live and uncensored, to the Chinese people.
After weeks of intensive negotiations, Cheney was granted that measure of openness - but not one millimeter more.
Anyone who tuned into CCTV-4, China's all-news television channel, shortly after 10 a.m. Thursday could have watched Cheney deliver an address to students at Fudan University in Shanghai. A State Department linguist provided simultaneous interpretation.
The broadcast, however, received no advance billing in the Chinese news media and was not repeated. And authorities promptly plastered leading Web sites with a "full text" of the vice president's remarks, including his answers to questions after the speech, that struck out references to political freedom, Taiwan, North Korea and other issues that propaganda officials considered sensitive.
The censorship showed that even a hopeful sign of political progress in China can be more like a mirage. Officials sought to convey a relaxed attitude about what Cheney might say in public even as they worked behind the scenes to alter the record, analysts say.
"What they do to control the media is sometimes surreal," says Yu Maochun, a China expert at the U.S. Naval Academy who noticed discrepancies between Cheney's speech and the Chinese transcript of the address. "Censorship is a habit they can't kick."
In a similar sleight of the invisible hand late last year, a state-owned Chinese publisher issued an authorized Chinese version of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's autobiography, Living History, that edited or elided most of Clinton's references to visits to China by her and former President Bill Clinton.
In his speech Thursday, Cheney spoke broadly about American foreign policy. But he devoted much of the talk and a subsequent exchange with students to links between political and economic freedom in China as well as Taiwan, the most delicate topic in United States-China relations.
The Chinese transcript was prepared immediately after the address by the People's Daily, the main newspaper of the Communist Party, and was distributed to newspapers and Web sites across the country. It provided a faithful translation of most of what Cheney said. But it dropped numerous references to "political freedom" and "individual freedom."
Whereas Cheney praised "rising prosperity and expanding political freedom" across Asia, the official Chinese transcript refers only to "rising prosperity." It drops his statements that "the desire for freedom is universal," and that "freedom is indivisible."
It also wiped out any record of what Cheney said about the Taiwan Relations Act, a congressional law that mandates that the United States sell Taiwan military equipment so that it could defend itself if it came under an attack from the Chinese mainland.
Cheney said that the war on terror must not be used as a pretext to suppress "legitimate dissent." The Chinese, who have battled dissidents they say are terrorists in their largely Muslim region of Xinjiang, dropped that phrase.
The longest elisions involved Cheney's references to the North Korean nuclear crisis, Pyongyang's alleged acquisition of nuclear technology from Pakistan, and the problem of proliferation generally. China, which is closer to North Korea than any other country, is acting as a broker in negotiations over how to end North Korea's nuclear program.
Live on two channels
The full address was carried live on the Chinese-language news channel and a second China Central Television channel that broadcasts in English. Although China Central Television is the main television news provider, the number of people who watch its specialty news channel during working hours is thought to be quite small.
Those who did not catch the live broadcast, which was not promoted in advance, likely saw only the edited version of the speech. The edited text, without indications of editing changes, was posted on the Web sites of the People's Daily, the New China News Agency and other online venues.
An editor at the People's Daily Web site involved with preparing the transcript denied that any censorship had occurred. The editor, who declined to be identified, said missing sentences or sections are attributable solely to the speed with which the transcript was prepared.