Michelle Obama’s Call for Freedom of Expression and Worship Ignored by Chinese State Media

First Lady Michelle Obama delivers a speech at the Stanford Center at Peking University, March 22, 2104 in Beijing, China. (Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty)
First Lady Michelle Obama delivers a speech at the Stanford Center at Peking University, March 22, 2104 in Beijing, China. (Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty)

First Lady Michelle Obama included cautious but clear remarks on freedom of expression and worship in a speech in Beijing at the weekend – comments that were ignored in state media coverage of her visit, where the preferred focus has been on fashion and food.

Before her visit to China began the White House said she would promote education and “people-to-people” exchanges, and would steer clear of contentious issues like human rights.

But in an address to Chinese and American students at the Stanford Center at Peking University, Mrs. Obama did insert references to key human rights, albeit without any direct criticism of China’s policies.

“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 rights – they are universal rights that are the birthright of every person on this planet,” she said.

Mrs. Obama extolled the importance of online freedom, again without mentioning the situation in her host country, which media freedom advocates say leads the world in restricting the censoring the Internet.

“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 said. “That’s how we learn what’s really happening in our communities and our country and our world. And that’s how we decide which values and ideas we think are best – by questioning and debating them vigorously, by listening to all sides of an argument, and by judging for ourselves.”

Mrs. Obama noted that such openness can be “messy” and difficult for leaders when confronted by criticism.

“Believe me, I know how this can be a messy and frustrating process. 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 we wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. Because time and again, we have seen that countries are stronger and more prosperous when the voices of and opinions of all their citizens can be heard.”

Coverage of the first lady’s visit in leading state media ignored the remarks.

The Xinhua news agency’s report on the speech, which also ran in the Chinese Communist Party organ, People’s Daily, took the angle that Mr. Obama called on students to study abroad to build “bridges of understanding,” focusing on a quote in which she said, “studying abroad is a powerful vehicle for people-to-people exchanges as we move into a new era of citizen diplomacy.”

The state-run China Daily said Mrs. Obama used the speech to call “for more education and cultural exchanges between China and the U.S.”

China Central Television (CCTV), the state television network, said the speech “focused on the importance of education and cultural exchanges.”

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Patrick Goodenough

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