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US first lady stresses freedom of speech in China

March 22, 2014
Associated Press

BEIJING (AP) — First lady Michelle Obama told students in China, which has some of the world's tightest restrictions on the Internet, that freedom of speech and unfettered access to information make countries stronger and should be universal rights.

Mrs. Obama was speaking Saturday at Peking University in Beijing during a trip aimed at promoting educational exchanges between the U.S. and China. The trip also took on political overtones when she was granted a previously unscheduled meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday.

Mrs. Obama said the free flow of information is crucial "because that's how we discover truth, that's how we learn what's really happening in our communities, our country and our world." She said it makes countries stronger "when the voices and opinions of all their citizens can be heard."

"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 every argument and by judging for ourselves," she said in her speech.

China blocks many foreign news sites and social media services such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Its army of censors routinely filters out information deemed offensive by the government. Authorities also block some of the country's most outspoken online voices by shutting down their blogs and restricting their ability to register for new accounts.

Earlier this month, China removed dozens of accounts on a popular mobile phone messaging service that had essentially become independent media outlets outside government control.

Though not likely to be well-received by the government, Mrs. Obama's remarks may not draw any strong protest because her speech and a subsequent moderated discussion focused mainly on the value of educational exchanges. The audience included both Chinese and visiting foreign students.

Fulbright scholar Eleanor Goodman from Harvard University's Fairbanks Center said the first lady's talk was "firm but not overbearing" in its promotion of free speech. "She felt a need to make that statement," Goodman said.

Ni Sunny, a Chinese student studying environmentalism at State University of New York, said she was impressed when Mrs. Obama said that studying abroad should not be the privilege of the wealthy. She also said China could learn from the U.S. environmental movement as it tackles pollution at home.

"I like it also because she said the world has shared challenges, and we need to study each other's cultures to combat the challenges together," Ni said.

Mrs. Obama's meeting Friday with Xi, though not unexpected, was not originally part of the itinerary for her seven-day, three-city trip to China, and was a sign that the leaders of the world's two largest economies are seeking to build stronger personal bonds.

Xi said he cherished the "personal friendship" he has established with President Barack Obama, and Mrs. Obama thanked him for his hospitality.

Teng Jianqun, director of the American studies department at government-administered think tank China Institute of International Studies, said that Mrs. Obama also likely served as a messenger on behalf of the U.S. president.

The trip, the first time a U.S. president's wife has independently visited China, also has given her an opportunity to engage with Xi's wife, Peng Liyuan, who watched Mrs. Obama attempt some Chinese calligraphy Friday while offering words of encouragement. Peng is an accomplished singer who quit stage when her husband ascended to power and has since turned her attention to charity events as China seeks to soften its international image.

The Obama delegation will visit the Great Wall outside Beijing on Sunday, and is due to fly Monday to Xi'an, home to the famed Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, then visit a panda breeding facility outside Chengdu in the southwest.



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