BEIJING — On a visit that was supposed to be nonpolitical, Michelle Obama delivered an unmistakable message to the Chinese on Saturday, 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 weeklong trip to China with her two daughters and her mother, the US first lady spoke to an audience of Americans and Chinese at Peking University. In the middle of an appeal for more US students to study abroad, she also spoke 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 United States, she said, respected the “uniqueness” of other cultures and societies. “But when it comes to expressing yourself freely,” she said, “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’s trip also took on political overtones when she was granted a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday.
Xi arrived in the Netherlands on Saturday on the first state visit by a Chinese president to that country. He will attend next week’s nuclear security summit in The Hague. Amnesty International ledd a protest on Amsterdam’s central Dam Square to call attention to human rights abuses in China.
Michelle Obama’s forthright exposition of the American belief in freedom of speech came against a backdrop of broad censorship of the Internet by the Chinese government.
The government polices the Internet to prevent the nation’s 500 million users from seeing antigovernment sentiment, and it 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 to be of particular concern to censors. Obliquely, Obama drew attention to this by making a comparison with the situation she and President Obama face in the United States.
“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 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 — foreign exchanges in particular.
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 United States.
In her speech, Obama said that study abroad should not be just the preserve of the rich.