Michelle Obama Praises Free Speech During China Trip

During what was supposed to be a non-political tour of China, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke out on free speech to an audience of students.

Michelle Obama Praises Free Speech During China Trip
Xinhua / Ding Lin

Michelle Obama's week-long tour of China got off to a smooth start this week. Mrs. Obama met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and toured an elite high school with First Lady Peng Liyuan. She even tried her hand at some ping pong. (Via The White House)

But while the First Lady's trip has focused on sightseeing and international goodwill over hard diplomacy, Obama did manage to get a little political during a speech she gave Saturday.

Obama was addressing a mix of American and Chinese students at Peking University about the importance of study abroad programs and cultural exchange, but she also talked about the value of free speech and free expression.

OBAMA: "Time and again, we have seen that countries are stronger and more prosperous when the voices and opinions of all their citizens can be heard." (Via The White House)

Free speech is a touchy subject in China. The New York Times notes Obama's statement "came against a backdrop of broad censorship of the Internet by the Chinese government. The government polices the Internet to prevent the nation’s 500 million users from seeing antigovernment sentiment​."

Although Obama stopped short of pointing a finger directly at China's so-called Great Firewall, ABC News points out the First Lady's comments still came as a bit of a surprise.

"The White House, as you said, had said Mrs. Obama would shy away from political issues. But access to the Internet and social media we know is very much a hot-button issue."

And the BBC notes there might still be one more point of contention on her tour; Obama is scheduled to dine at a Tibetan restaurant during her trip, which some Chinese media outlets have read as a show of support for Tibetans who resent China's repressive rule.

Less controversially, Mrs. Obama also addressed the missing Malaysian Air Flight 370 during her speech, saying her family kept the missing passengers and crew, as well as their families, in their thoughts and prayers. (Via NBC)

The First Lady's next stop in her trip is the city of Xi'an, home of the famous Terra Cotta warriors, followed by Chengdu, which features a panda enclosure. Her stay in China ends Mar. 26.