First lady Michelle Obama took the occasion of her first trip to China to highlight the importance of free speech and unfettered Internet access in a nation known for restricting citizens' web use.
This comes after many critics expressed concern that she would not use the opportunity of her week-long goodwill tour to address political issues.
Speaking at the Stanford Center at Peking University on Saturday, the first lady touted the importance of study abroad programs to about 200 attendees hosted by the oldest national university in China.
Obama stressed that the benefits of international exposure should not be limited to affluent youths.
“For a lot of young people like me who are struggling to afford a regular semester of school,” she told the assembled, “paying for plane tickets or living expenses halfway around the world just isn’t possible. And that’s not acceptable because study abroad shouldn’t just be for students from certain background[s].”
Yet, what garnered world-wide attention were her remarks regarding the importance of unrestricted access to the Internet to a nation’s intellectual and political life.
“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 the argument and by judging for ourselves,” said Obama. “And 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 and opinions of all citizens can be heard.”
China blocks access to most social media sites, in addition to blogging platforms, certain news sites and many human rights sites. The country also exerts control over traditional news outlets.
“Her remarks are a veiled swipe at China's harshly restrictive media environment,” according to Time.com.
Most of the trip, which began in Beijing, has focused on finding common ground between China and the United States, the world’s two largest economies, with a focus on education.
Travelling with her daughters Sasha and Malia, and her mother Marian Robinson, Mrs. Obama has received a personal tour of a former imperial residence from China’s first lady, Peng Liyuan; observed both native Chinese and American exchange students attending secondary schools; and traversed the Great Wall of China.
Obama even managed to squeeze in a game of ping pong, likely to further promote her Let’s Move initiative, which encourages America's chldren to exercise.
The first lady is sharing these adventures through social media with students and onlookers via her Instagram and Twitter accounts. People are encouraged to ask Obama questions using the hashtag #FLOTUSinChina. Many speculate that her team is using a special Internet connection to circumvent what many call China’s “Great Firewall."
Regardless of the political implications of Obama’s Saturday speech, the first lady has been warmly received, making a big splash as usual for her sartorial choices, which have focused on designers of Chinese decent.
“The relationships between the United States and China couldn’t be more important,” the first lady said on Friday, “and having the opportunity to travel here, to listen, to learn, to hear more about the education initiatives here in this country and to share my travels with students throughout the United States is a very unique experience, and it’s one that I will never forget.”
First lady Michelle Obama and her family will continue their tour in the city of Chengdu, near Tibet.