BEIJING — U.S. first lady Michelle Obama told students in China, which has some of the world’s tightest restrictions on the Internet, that freedom of speech and unfettered access to information make countries stronger and should be universal rights.

Mrs. Obama was speaking Saturday at Peking University in Beijing during a weeklong trip aimed at promoting educational exchanges between the U.S. and China. The trip also took on political overtones when she was granted a previously unscheduled meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday.

Mrs. Obama said the free flow of information is crucial “because that’s how we discover truth, 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 every argument and by judging for ourselves,” she said.

China blocks many foreign news sites and social media services such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Its army of censors routinely filters out information deemed offensive by the government and silences dissenting voices.

Though not likely to be well-received by the government, Mrs. Obama’s remarks may not draw any strong protest because her speech and a subsequent moderated discussion among 50 students – sitting in two identical conference rooms in Beijing and Palo Alto, Calif., but connected via modern technology – focused mainly on the value of educational exchanges.


She told the audience that study abroad programs are “a vital part of America’s foreign policy.”

Fulbright scholar Eleanor Goodman from Harvard University’s Fairbanks Center for East Asian Research said the first lady probably “felt a need to make that statement” on freedom of information.

“It was firm but not overbearing,” Goodman said.

Mrs. Obama’s meeting Friday with Xi, though not unexpected, was not originally part of the itinerary for her seven-day, three-city trip to China, and was a sign that the leaders of the world’s two largest economies are seeking to build stronger personal bonds.

The trip, the first time a U.S. president’s wife has independently visited China, also has given Mrs. Obama an opportunity to engage with Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, who has broken the mold of reticent Chinese first ladies in recent decades.

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