BEIJING, Mar 21: First lady Michelle Obama called on China Saturday to respect universal rights including freedom of expression and religion, and open access to information.
Her week-long trip, focused on education, embraces pandas, ping-pong and people-to-people diplomacy, but she used a speech at Peking University to push China to soften its authoritarian system.
“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 told an audience of Chinese and U.S. students at the Stanford Center of Peking University.
Without specifying her target, it was clear the remarks were aimed at China, which heavily censors the Internet, jails citizens who speak too freely on political subjects, and restricts religious groups.
Chinese students in the audience later thronged the first lady, taking pictures and selfies with their cellphones. But several students declined to discuss the rights section of Obama’s speech, a reminder of the lack of freedom of expression in China, and the fear of speaking publicly on sensitive issues.
“It was quite enlightening to hear about her experience and her struggle”, said Mary Yan, 23, an English major at Peking University. “But it’s not convenient for me to talk about such issues,” she said when asked about universal rights.
Du Jinwei, 24, a social studies major “like Obama,” welcomed her remarks on rights, but said that China would continue to go its own way. “China is growing more open and free, and the Internet is very widespread now,” he said. “We have a very different political system and culture to the USA. China will keep some controls on the Internet, and an election-based system does not suit and will never suit China,” said Du. “Our leaders will not be chosen by election.”
New Yorker Diana Au, studying international studies in Beijing at nearby Qinghua University, said Obama’s speech pushed rights in a very diplomatic way. Au was frustrated at first by China’s blocks on social media sites including Facebook and Twitter, but said she is embracing and enjoying other aspects of living and learning in China.
Obama stressed the value of young Americans and Chinese building relationships by studying in each others’ countries. “We view study abroad programs not just as an educational opportunity for students, but also as a vital part of America’s foreign policy,” she said. The U.S. government supports more American students in China than in any other country, said Obama.
In advance of her trip, the White House had stressed she would avoid sensitive subjects. In 1995, then-first lady Hilary Clinton annoyed China with strong remarks on human rights during a visit.
The first lady kicked off a week of diplomacy Friday, in the company of her Chinese counterpart, plus Obama’s mother and two daughters.
Focused on education and youth empowerment, the three-city tour marks only the third time the U.S. first lady has made an overseas trip without President Obama since the family moved into the White House.
Strong Chinese interest in her visit reflects not only China’s fascination with America, but also the unusually high profile of Obama’s host, Peng Liyuan, the stylish wife of China’s Communist Party leader, and president, Xi Jinping.
Unlike previous leaders’ wives, who stayed mostly hidden, Peng, formerly a popular singer, has taken on a public role akin to that of her U.S. counterpart.
Pictures of the Obama family’s arrival dominated most front pages here Friday, pushing aside coverage of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, which carried 153 Chinese passengers.
Media have poured over trip details including the eye-watering $8,400 per night rate at the Presidential Suite in the 5-star Westin Hotel, close to the U.S. Embassy, which they are occupying.
First lady Michelle Obama, with her daughters Malia, right, and Sasha, second from right, is greeted by Chinese President Xi Jinping, second from left, and his wife Peng Liyuan, left, at the Diaoyutai State guest house in Beijing March 21, 2014.(Photo: Andy Wong AP)
President Xi was on hand Friday evening at the state guesthouse Diaoyutai where the first lady was having dinner and watching a show with Peng.
In a brief statement, Xi offered warm greetings to his guests, and noted that he cherishes the “sound working relationship and personal friendship I have already established with your husband, and we stay in close touch through meetings, phone conversations and correspondence.”
The first lady replied by describing her “wonderful first day” in the capital.
“We had an opportunity to meet with students, I tried my hand at ping pong — not so good,” she said. “And our visit to the Forbidden City is one that we will never forget. Being able to see my mother, who doesn’t get to travel internationally often, walk through that ancient city, and to see her excitement and wonder is a moment that I will treasure forever.”
The U.S.-China relationship is often noisy with discord, as the world’s two largest economies spar over issues ranging from trade disputes to religious freedom. This week, the White House hopes to promote the value of exchanges between the two countries.
“Her agenda sends a message that the relationship between the United States and China is not just between leaders, it’s a relationship between peoples,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for communications, said this week.
China’s state-run media naturally welcome Michelle Obama’s avoidance of political issues.
“That approach is right,” said a commentary in the Xinhua news agency Thursday.
“The uniqueness of the role of first ladies is its soft touch and freedom from the knottiness and even ugliness of hard politics,” it said.
The only ugliness on display Friday appeared to be a robot named ‘bad boy’, which Obama failed to operate with a remote control, but daughter Malia got to move as they toured the robotics class of a Beijing high school.
In her table-tennis outing, Michelle Obama played with a teacher and a student, and said of President Obama: “My husband plays. He thinks he’s better than he really is.”
After Peng welcomed her formally at the school, Obama highlighted the rarity of making an overseas trip with her daughters and mother. That ‘three generations’ theme is likely to recur and will play well in China’s heavily family-oriented society.
China was chosen as the “relationships between the United States and China couldn’t be more important,” said Obama. “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.”
At a calligraphy class, Obama learned how to write the Chinese character for ‘eternal’, and joked, “I’ll be here forever until I get it right.”
When Obama admitted to nerves, Peng said in English “don’t be nervous”. After writing a four-character phrase, with adept brush strokes, Peng presented her calligraphy to Obama.
Her hosts appeared keen to reduce the clear height gap with their tall American visitors. The diminutive Peng Liyuan wore prominent heels throughout Friday, even on the unforgiving slabs of the Forbidden City.
At the high school, lanky Lu Yuhong,16, who assisted Obama in writing ‘eternal’, told journalists he had been selected for the task because he is taller than her, reported Shanghai’s Oriental Morning Post newspaper.
The first ladies, and their heavy security detail, caused some traffic jams and tourist grumbles in their visit to the Forbidden City, former residence of China’s Emperors, for a whistle-stop tour, in under 45 minutes, through an imperial complex that needs a full day to explore well.
The party then drove past Tiananmen Square, where Peng, a military singer for decades, once serenaded martial-law troops after the June 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protesters.
“The meeting of the two first ladies shows that China is more open and is getting more involved with the international community,” Ruan Zongze, vice president of the China Institute of International Studies, told the China Daily newspaper Friday.
This weekend, Obama will give a speech on education at Peking University, visit the Great Wall outside Beijing, then travel Monday to the central Chinese city of Xi’an, and its famed terracotta warriors. The family hits Chengdu, in the southwest, on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Obama will come closest to controversy on her very final scheduled activity – lunch Wednesday at a Tibetan restaurant in Chengdu.
During the past five years, over 130 Tibetans have tried to kill themselves through self-immolation to protest against Chinese rule. Most of them lived in ethnically Tibetan areas of Sichuan province, of which Chengdu is the capital.