Chinese State Media Ignores Michelle Obama's Call for Freedom of Expression and Worship

By Patrick Goodenough | March 23, 2014 | 8:25pm EDT

First Lady Michelle Obama holds a book given to her as a gift from Peking University as she leaves a podium after her speech at Stanford Center in the Peking University in Beijing, China, Saturday, March 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

( – First Lady Michelle Obama included cautious but clear remarks on freedom of expression and worship in a speech in Beijing at the weekend – comments that were ignored in state media coverage of her visit, where the preferred focus has been on fashion and food.

Before her visit to China began the White House said she would promote education and “people-to-people” exchanges, and would steer clear of contentious issues like human rights.

But in an address to Chinese and American students at the Stanford Center at Peking University, Mrs. Obama did insert references to key human rights, albeit without any direct criticism of China’s policies.

“As my husband has said, we respect the uniqueness of other cultures and societies, 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 universal rights that are the birthright of every person on this planet,” she said.

Mrs. Obama extolled the importance of online freedom, again without mentioning the situation in her host country, which media freedom advocates say leads the world in restricting the censoring the Internet.

“It’s so important for information and ideas to flow freely over the Internet and through the media, because that’s how we discover the truth,” she said. “That’s how we learn what’s really happening in our communities and our country and our world.  And that’s how we decide which values and ideas we think are best – by questioning and debating them vigorously, by listening to all sides of an argument, and by judging for ourselves.”

Mrs. Obama noted that such openness can be “messy” and difficult for leaders when confronted by criticism.

“Believe me, I know how this can be a messy and frustrating process.  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 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.”

Coverage of the first lady’s visit in leading state media ignored the remarks.

The Xinhua news agency’s report on the speech, which also ran in the Chinese Communist Party organ, People’s Daily, took the angle that Mr. Obama called on students to study abroad to build “bridges of understanding,” focusing on a quote in which she said, “studying abroad is a powerful vehicle for people-to-people exchanges as we move into a new era of citizen diplomacy.”

The state-run China Daily said Mrs. Obama used the speech to call “for more education and cultural exchanges between China and the U.S.”

China Central Television (CCTV), the state television network, said the speech “focused on the importance of education and cultural exchanges.”

CCTV aired a clip from the speech in which Mrs. Obama said: “We believe the relationships between nations aren’t just about relationships between governments or leaders, they are about relationships between people, particularly young people. So we view study abroad programs not just as an educational opportunity for students, but also as a vital part of America’s foreign policy.”

The clip ended before the next line in the speech, in which she said, “Through the wonders of modern technology, our world is more connected than ever before. Ideas can cross oceans with the click of a button. Companies can do business and compete with companies across the globe. And we can text, email, Skype with people on every continent.”

Mrs. Obama walks with her daughters Malia and Sasha as they visit the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China near Beijing Sunday, March 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Chinese official media coverage of the six-day visit by the first lady, her mother Marian Robinson, and daughters Malia and Sasha has focused largely on light subject matter.

The Communist Party-affiliated Global Times contrasted Mrs. Obama’s style with that of the Chinese first lady, Peng Liyuan, a renowned Chinese folk singer.

While the American favors “bright colors with vitality,” it said, Mrs. Peng prefers “dark colors with demure and elegant temperament.” Mrs. Obama’s preferred accessories include a “double-strand pearl necklace” while her Chinese counterpart goes for “long scarves.”

China Daily informed its readers that the visitors’ main course at a restaurant on Sunday before a walk along a section of the Great Wall included “included pan-fried rainbow trout, stewed pork served over pulled noodles and vegetarian dumplings with hot sauce and vinegar.”

The previous evening, it said, the group had reservations for Beijing’s Da Dong, famous for its roast duck dishes.

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