Michelle Obama to China: ‘The Right to Say What We Think’

Photograph by Peter Parks/AFP Getty Images

First Lady Michelle Obama performs tai chi with students from Chengdu No7 High School in Chengdu on March 25, 2014.

Michelle Obama mixed the personal and the political today as her six-day trip to China neared its end. Speaking in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, the touring first lady told students at one of the nation’s top high schools that she grew up “like many of you.”

Obama recounted the struggles her working-class parents faced ensuring that she and her brother were educated. From there, it was a short rhetorical jump to a recitation of American values that included an idea considered heretical in authoritarian China.

“We all have the right to say what we think and worship as we choose, even when others don’t like what we say or don’t agree with what we believe,” the first lady told students.

The Chengdu talk marked the second time Obama has tip-toed onto sensitive terrain since arriving last week in China. During a weekend Peking University speech, she endorsed Internet and media freedom, saying: “That’s how we discover the truth.”

In Chengdu, Obama also drew on personal experience in a nod to the American civil rights movement, which saw protests by “ordinary citizens” overturn the existing order. That made it possible for her husband to become president of a country that once “allowed discrimination against black people like me,” she said.

Obama’s political moment passed quickly, though, and she was soon back to her customary role. She participated in a distance learning demonstration with up to 20,000 students in rural classrooms linked via satellite hookups and then ventured outdoors for a quick try at tai-chi, the Chinese martial art.

Still, she has had more to say publicly about this on her trip than her husband has said a world away during a public statement yesterday with Chinese President Xi Jinping at The Hague. President Barack Obama spoke only in passing about the “frictions” between the U.S. and China on the question of human rights.

Tomorrow, any politicking on Michelle Obama’s part will be culinary.

The first lady is scheduled to see Chengdu’s famous pandas before winding up her visit with lunch at a Tibetan restaurant. Tibet, of course, is a Chinese region known more for separatist sentiment than for fine dining.

– David Lynch reported from Chengdu, China.

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