Freedom of expression is 'birth right,' Michelle Obama tells Peking University students

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 March, 2014, 1:57pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 March, 2014, 11:24am

In a speech to Peking University students yesterday, US first lady Michelle Obama defended freedom of expression and other "universal rights" - sensitive concepts that mainland university professors were banned from teaching a year ago.

The remarks - the closest the first lady has so far come to discussing politics during her China visit - came during an otherwise soft speech in which she encouraged students to study abroad and cited her own success as a testament to hard work.

"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. "We believe that all people deserve the opportunity to fulfil their highest potential, as I was able to do in the United States."

Obama's audience at the university's Stanford Centre included about 200 Chinese and American students, new US ambassador Max Baucus, Peking University dean Wang Enge and the directors of top American university programmes in China.

Universal values, freedom of speech and civil rights were among seven sensitive topics banned from universities last March as part of a broader Communist Party crackdown on "dangerous" Western ideas.

Echoing her remarks in a Caixin interview before beginning her trip, Obama said she and her husband valued criticism from the public. "We have seen that countries are stronger and more prosperous when the voices of and opinions of all their citizens can be heard," she said.

Obama's visit comes at a delicate time for Sino-US relations, as Beijing and Washington attempt to navigate regional territorial disputes, trade friction and sabre-rattling by North Korea. The trip by the US first lady has been widely seen by Chinese analysts as an attempt to promote US soft power in China.