After causing a stir by urging free speech on the mainland, US first lady Michelle Obama returned to less sensitive topics on the third day of her visit, extolling the virtues of investing in education.
In her opening remarks at a round-table discussion at the US embassy in Beijing yesterday, Obama told mainland students, educators and parents education was a personal issue for her.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without my parents investing and pushing me to get a good education,” she said. “My parents were not educated themselves, but one of the things they understood was that my brother and I needed that foundation.”
Obama’s arrival at the embassy set off a minor security alert when two people began shouting as her motorcade neared. Police and men in grey jumpers ran to subdue them. It was unclear what they were shouting about.
A day before, Obama had given a 15-minute speech at Peking University where she called defended press freedoms and other “universal rights” – a touchy topic as mainland news is heavily censored and “universal values” is banned from being taught in universities.
Her remarks were widely circulated on social media, but were absent from state media reports. Xinhua and China News Service focused instead on her urging students to study abroad.
“As my husband [US President Barack Obama] has said, we respect the uniqueness of other cultures and societies,” she said on Saturday.
“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 … a birthright of every person on this planet.”
That drew mixed responses on Sina Weibo. One user said that while she “did not use sophisticated public speaking skills”, her message was “from her heart”.
Another scoffed, saying it showed how “Americans will not give up any chance to export their values and culture”.
“Yes, China should learn from the US to better listen to its citizens’ voices. Then maybe China should have a surveillance programme like Prism,” said one user, referring to the seven-year US mass spying programme exposed by Edward Snowden.
Waving to onlookers, Obama visited the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, 70 kilometres northeast of central Beijing, with her daughters Sasha and Malia.
The family, along with the first lady’s mother, Marian Robinson, then had noodles with braised pork at a restaurant, built from an abandoned primary school, near the wall.
Her tour, which the White House has said is cultural rather than political in nature, allowed her to spend more time with Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan.
Obama and her family will travel to Xian today, where she will visit the Terracotta Warriors Museum and the Xian city wall, before heading to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province.
In Chengdu, she will visit a high school, a panda base and will have lunch at a Tibetan restaurant before returning to the United States on Wednesday.
Additional reporting by Associated Press, Agence France-Presse