BEIJING — Michelle Obama, often criticized for her overly cautious comments while abroad, made clear Saturday that China will be unable to advance its education goals without easing Internet restrictions and allowing greater freedom of expression.
Speaking at the Stanford Center at Peking University, Obama did not cite China specifically, and prefaced her comments by noting that the United States must "respect the uniqueness" of other cultures and societies.
"But 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 said.
Obama delivered her prepared speech on her second full day in Beijing, where the Communist Party controls the media, detains and jails activists for organizing public demonstrations, and blocks citizens from accessing international news and social media websites.
As a presidential spouse, Obama has been careful not to make statements that might complicate her husband's foreign policy agenda. That is why her comments surprised some in the audience, including U.S. and Chinese students who clamored to have their photos taken with her after the speech. The night before, Obama met China's top party leader, President Xi Jinping, after touring schools and the Forbidden City with Xi's wife, Peng Liyuan.
"It was very interesting," said Ashley Ladeira, a 25-year-old from Hawaii, who is in her second year at Peking University seeking a master's degree in international relations. "It was very diplomatic. It wasn't in your face. But it was clear what she was saying, and it was a very important step to take."
Obama talked about the power of technology and open media in stimulating debate and allowing the world to learn about new innovations.
"Believe me, I know how this can be a messy and frustrating process," said Obama. "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 I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world," she added.