Michelle Obama plays table tennis during a visit to a Beijing school. (Reuters)
Beijing, March 22: On a visit that was supposed to be non-political, Michelle Obama delivered an unmistakable message to the Chinese today, saying in a speech here that freedom of speech, particularly on the Internet and in the news media, provided the foundation for a vibrant society.
On the second day of a week-long trip to China with her two daughters and her mother, Michelle Obama spoke to an audience of Americans and Chinese at Peking University, and in the midst of an appeal for more American students to study abroad, she also talked of the value for people of hearing “all sides of every argument”.
“Time and again, we have seen that countries are stronger and more prosperous when the voices and opinions of all their citizens can be heard,” she said.
The US, she said, respected the “uniqueness” of other cultures and societies. “But when it comes to expressing yourself freely, and worshipping as you choose, and having open access to information — we believe those are universal rights that are the birthright of every person on this planet.”
The forthright exposition of the American belief in freedom of speech came against a backdrop of broad censorship by the Chinese government of the Internet. The government polices the Internet to prevent the nation’s 500 million users from seeing anti-government sentiment, and blocks a variety of foreign websites, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The authorities compel domestic Internet sites to censor themselves.
Criticism of China’s top leadership is quickly deleted and is considered particularly sensitive. Obliquely, Michelle Obama drew attention to this by making a comparison with the situation she and President Obama face in the US.
“My husband and I are on the receiving end of plenty of questioning and criticism from our media and our fellow citizens,” she said. “And it’s not always easy, but we wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
The White House has stressed that Michelle Obama’s trip to China during the spring break of her daughters, Malia and Sasha, is intended to highlight the importance of education, and foreign exchanges in particular.
Michelle Obama appeared at the Stanford University complex at Peking University, where she spoke to an audience of several hundred American students studying in China and some Chinese students who had studied in the US.
The president of Peking University, Wang Enge, welcomed her, and the new American ambassador to China, Max Baucus, who is a graduate of Stanford University and its law school, also spoke.
Yesterday, Michelle Obama visited the elite Second High School Attached to Beijing Normal University, where along with the Chinese student body, 30 American students study, most of whom are from private schools in the US and pay $50,000 annually in tuition. One of the American students in the programme came from the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, which Malia and Sasha attend.