Michelle Obama Touches on Freedom in China Speech

Internet users appreciative, while state outlets downplay reference
March 23, 2014 Updated: March 23, 2014

U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama spoke to hundreds of students at the prestigious Peking University in Beijing on March 22, touching on the importance of study-abroad programs, the need for youth to do their own diplomacy—and, in a surprise given overtures that this was not to be a political trip—the importance of freedom of speech and belief.

The remarks on those topics were played down by Chinese news websites and not mentioned in the official press. The Chinese Communist Party says that universal values and human rights are merely a “club” used to attack its power. 

Mrs. Obama is in China for nearly a week; most recently she visited the Great Wall with her daughters, and held a roundtable dialogue with Chinese educators. 

Obama administration staffers had indicated the trip would not focus on what the Chinese consider sensitive topics, like human rights — but Mrs. Obama included robust reference to such values while discussing the things that are important for young people as they grow up. 

“As my husband has said, we 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 universal right—they are universal rights that are the birthright of every person on this planet,” she said. 

“That’s why it’s so important for information and ideas to flow freely over the Internet and through the media, because that’s how we discover the truth,” she added. 

Chinese official media did not seem to agree.

Mrs. Obama’s remarks about freedom and rights were carefully kept out of all headlines in the Chinese press, and excluded entirely in reports by the state-run newspapers. 

Some media agencies in China reported that she had mentioned freedom of speech, while others attributed her remarks to the BBC. 

Chinese Communist Party authorities strictly censor the Internet in China, and a large number of websites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are inaccessible there. 

Information about human rights abuses and freedom of speech is typically blocked in China, including the persecution of religious groups, rights activists, and dissidents. 

The blocking in this case was not as thorough as may have been expected, though: Comments quoting Mrs. Obama’s remarks about freedom and rights were available on Sina Weibo, a popular microblogging platform. 

Some said her speech was “very touching,” and one netizen said that Mrs. Obama had a “good heart.”