In China, Michelle Obama turns her focus on education

Michelle Obama walked along the Great Wall of China with her daughters Malia and Sasha (right) on Sunday.
Michelle Obama walked along the Great Wall of China with her daughters Malia and Sasha (right) on Sunday.Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images

BEIJING — Michelle Obama brought the importance of education to the foreground on Sunday on the third day of a visit to China, where she has won praise for her approachability and admiration for her comments supporting freedom of speech.

Obama, traveling with her two daughters, has been photographed at famous spots including the Forbidden City and Great Wall during the first independent trip by a US president’s wife to China. She has won compliments for her elegant clothing and her interactions with ordinary people in a country where it is rare to see leaders’ spouses or children in public.

‘‘She is very warm and frank, and when she is talking to people she conscientiously listens to what they have to say,’’ said Wu Qing, a retired professor of Beijing Foreign Studies University who met Obama on Sunday.


‘‘In China, we usually use weather to express our mood or state of mind, so the fact that the weather has been so nice these few days means she is very welcome in China,’’ Wu said.

Obama hosted a discussion about education with a handful of Chinese professors, students, and parents, as well as the new US ambassador to China, Max Baucus, at the US Embassy on Sunday morning. In the afternoon, she visited part of the Great Wall in the northern Beijing suburbs with her daughters, 15-year-old Malia and 12-year-old Sasha, and her mother, Marian Robinson.

There, Obama and her daughters walked a stretch of the wall that looks out to a massive rock inscription on a hillside that reads in Chinese: ‘‘Loyal to Chairman Mao.’’

The purpose of Obama’s weeklong visit is to promote educational exchanges between the United States and China, although she brought up a contentious issue Saturday in a 15-minute speech at a university.

She said that freedom of speech and unfettered access to information make countries stronger and should be universal rights. But she did not call out on Beijing directly in her speech at Peking University’s Stanford Center.


China has some of the world’s tightest restrictions on the Internet, and Obama’s comments were absent Sunday from state media but circulated in social media, where they were widely praised.

‘‘I was very impressed by her speech mentioning freedom of speech,’’ said Zhang Lifan, an independent historian who said he had read about it in overseas Chinese media. ‘‘Although the Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of speech, Chinese citizens don’t really enjoy that right. I think she just reminded China in a polite and mild way that not allowing freedom of speech is not conducive to China.’’