BEIJING — Michelle Obama strayed into taboo territory during a speech Saturday at China's Peking University in which she called the rights of free speech and worship "the birthright of every person on this planet."
The first lady dropped her remarks toward the end of an otherwise uncontroversial speech to Chinese and U.S. students about overseas exchange programs.
"We respect the uniqueness of other cultures and societies,'' Obama said with a caveat nodding to Beijing's frequent protestations that Westerners don't understand their system. "But when it comes to expressing yourself freely and worshiping 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.''
Obama is in the middle of a weeklong visit, billed as a nonpolitical family vacation, that will include visits to China's tourist attractions — the Great Wall, the terra cotta warriors, the pandas. She is traveling with her daughters, Malia, 15, and Sasha, 12, and her mother, Marian Robinson.
The talk before a small, hand-picked audience of about 200 students at the Stanford Center at Peking University is the closest thing to a keynote speech the first lady is expected to deliver during the trip.
Although Obama avoided direct criticism of China, there was no way that Beijing could have missed the intent: The English-language China Daily in Sunday's editions reported extensively on her comments about education while omitting any reference to free speech or religion.
Chinese media are heavily censored; imports of foreign publications are still banned and many websites are blocked. Under the government of President
"It is so important for information and ideas to flow freely over the Internet and through the media," Obama said.
Gently referring to her family's tangles with the American press, Obama told the audience, "My husband and I are on the receiving end of plenty of questioning and criticism from our media and our fellow citizens.''
"It's not always easy, but we wouldn't trade it for anything in the world. Because time and again, 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.
To the point: The trip — and the family's accommodations in a $8,350 a night suite — has been broadly criticized by conservative media as a waste of taxpayers' money. As in the case with a 2010 trip to Spain, the family's actual expenses are dwarfed by the cost of security for the entourage.
Many political analysts say that a visit by a first lady can do far more to promote American values and bilateral relations than an official state visit by the president with all the accompanying protocol.
"I have been hoping Mrs. Obama would come for this exact reason: As the mother of two teenage daughters, she is America's finest envoy,'' said Liz Haenle, the Beijing-based head of an event planning and public speaking agency who served as a
"Mrs. Obama can use her bright spotlight to shine directly upon the need for more of America's youth to study in China, as she demonstrates our genuine goodwill and commitment to a strong bilateral relationship," Haenle said.
Before the visit, the Communist Party-run Global Times also extolled Michelle Obama's "soft diplomacy approach."