BEIJING — Michelle Obama, often criticized for her overly cautious comments while abroad, made clear Saturday that China will be unable to advance its education goals without easing Internet restrictions and allowing greater freedom of expression.
Speaking at the Stanford Center at Peking University, Obama did not cite China specifically, and she prefaced her comments by noting the United States must “respect 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,” Obama said.
She delivered her prepared speech on her second full day in Beijing, where the Communist Party controls the media, detains and jails activists for organizing public demonstrations and blocks citizens from accessing international news and social-media websites.
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Obama’s speech at the Stanford University complex was before an audience of several hundred American students studying in China and some Chinese students who had studied in the United States. The president of Peking University, Wang Enge, welcomed her, and the new U.S. ambassador to China, Max Baucus, who is a graduate of Stanford and its law school, also spoke.
As a presidential spouse, Obama has been careful not to make statements overseas that might complicate her husband’s foreign-policy agenda. That is why Obama’s comments surprised some in the audience, including U.S. and Chinese students who clamored to get their photo taken with her after the speech. The night before, she met China’s top party leader, President Xi Jinping, after touring schools and the Forbidden City with Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan.
“It was very interesting,” said Ashley Ladeira, 25, of Hawaii, who is in her second year at Peking University seeking a master’s degree in international relations. “It was very diplomatic. It wasn’t in your face. But it was clear what she was saying, and it was a very important step to take.”
The thrust of Obama’s address was one of her main themes: that more young people in the U.S. need to study and work overseas, helping to export U.S. values and improving relations through person-to-person contact.
“We view study-abroad programs not just as an educational opportunity for students but also as a vital part of America’s foreign policy,” Obama said.
After recounting the stories of U.S. students studying in China, she talked about the power of technology and open media in stimulating debate and allowing the world to learn about new innovations.
“Believe me, I know how this can be a messy and frustrating process,” Obama said. “My husband and I are on the receiving end of plenty of questioning and criticism from our media and our fellow citizens, and it’s not always easy. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
It’s doubtful many in China will get to hear Obama’s opinions. Since Xi became top party leader late in 2012, the government has tightened up what “netizens” can access and post on the Web, including via Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.
Obama, accompanied by her mother, Marian Robinson, and her daughters, Malia and Sasha, arrived in Beijing on Thursday night for their six-day visit. They will tour part of the Great Wall, the Xian terra-cotta warriors and a panda breeding center in Chengdu.
In what appears to be a nod to the White House’s concern about China’s treatment of ethnic Tibetans, Obama will visit a Tibetan restaurant for lunch in Chengdu that day.
Obama’s trip to Beijing was largely billed as a way for her to build a relationship with Peng, a famous singer in China who is often described as China’s “first modern first lady.”
Peng was once active on AIDS awareness and other public-health issues but gradually dropped from the public eye as her husband built up his power.
Friday’s meetings between Obama and Peng showed no signs of any natural bond between the two. During a visit to a calligraphy class at Beijing Normal School, Peng stood stiff in her navy-blue skirt suit, holding a red clutch purse.