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 that the United States must “respect the uniqueness” of other cultures and societies.
“But when it comes to expressing yourself freely, and worshiping 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.
Obama 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.
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. Just the night before, Obama 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, a 25-year-old from 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 United States 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 in her speech.
After recounting the stories of U.S. students studying in China, Obama 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,” said Obama. “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,” she added. “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.”
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.
A recent change in policy gives authorities the latitude to jail anyone accused of spreading widespread online “rumors,” said Michael Anti, a Chinese blogger and Internet activist. “This is a blank check for any local government to arrest any blogger they want,” Anti said on a panel Friday at the Bookworm Literary Festival in Beijing.
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 on Sunday, the Xian terracotta warriors on Monday and a panda breeding center in Chengdu on Wednesday.
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 Liyuan, 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 — at least those that were open to a media pool — showed no signs of any natural bond between the two presidential spouses. During a visit to a calligraphy class at Beijing Normal School, which included bilingual high schoolers from China and the United States, Peng stood stiff in her navy blue skirt suit, holding a red clutch purse. Obama at one point put her arm around the waist of Sasha, who looked much more weary from the previous day’s flight than her travel-tested mother.
Peng flashed a warm smile while using a brush to paint a four-character Chinese aphorism on virtues on a long sheet of paper, which she later gave to her counterpart. Obama herself practiced writing the Chinese phrase for “eternal,” and got high marks for effort from one of the students.
“It was her first try, and she did really good,” said Liu Yijie, 17, speaking in English. “Today, Ms. Obama held her brush really well.”
Later that night, the Obamas met Peng for dinner and a performance, and received what was described as a surprise visit from President Xi. According to a White House transcript, the Chinese leader told Michelle Obama that the “China-U.S. bilateral relationship matters very much to both of our countries.” He also issued a thanks to President Obama for “sending such a heavyweight ambassador to China” — a reference to former Sen. Max Baucus, who was installed as U.S. ambassador here earlier this week.
On Saturday, Baucus made some brief remarks before Michelle Obama’s speech. He noted his own background as a young globetrotter and said the world has since become much more interconnected “with texting, Twitter and Facebook.”
China has blocked both of these social media websites. That forces many U.S. students and other Western visitors here to purchase subscriptions to “virtual private networks,” or VPNs to get through the Chinese “Great Firewall” and access social media, news sites and certain search engines.
Ladeira, the Peking University student from Hawaii, said times are changing in China and exchanges between students from both countries can only help push that change.
“Hopefully one day in China,” she said, “I will not have to use a VPN to get on Facebook.”