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U.S. First Lady Prods Beijing

Thu, 03/27/2014 - 11:15am
Nancy Benac, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The photos from Michelle Obama's weeklong trip to China show her jumping rope, dabbling in tai-chi, walking the Great Wall with her daughters and feeding pandas. All to be expected from a first lady soaking up a rich culture while traveling abroad.

The first lady's words, meanwhile, cautiously veered from soft subjects such as the value of education and people-to-people exchanges into more pointed messages about the importance of Internet freedom, open expression and respect for minorities.

At the Chengdu No. 7 High School in Sichuan province, Mrs. Obama spoke of the American belief that "everyone is equal and that 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 always agree with what we believe."

A few days earlier, she told college students at Peking University that "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."

Such messages might draw a yawn in the U.S., but they packed more oomph when delivered halfway around the world in a country that has some of the world's tightest restrictions on the Internet and where ethnic minorities face widespread repression.

In her speeches, the first lady was careful not to explicitly criticize her Chinese hosts. But she went a little further in her blog posts, saying, "The government in China puts restrictions on both the Internet and the news media, but when my husband and I travel, we think it's important to talk about what we believe in America."

It was a familiar balancing act for Mrs. Obama, whose tenure as first lady has been all about finding ways to make a difference without coming on too strong, to the disappointment of some who had hoped the Princeton- and Harvard-educated lawyer would assume a more assertive role from her perch in the East Wing. Mrs. Obama has used her position as first lady to champion issues that complement her husband's agenda without making waves: fighting childhood obesity, supporting veterans and military families, pushing the importance of education.

The first lady's visit to China was widely reported on within the country, but her remarks about freedom of speech didn't make it into state press reports. They were, however, widely circulated in social media.

Zhang Lifan, an independent historian who read her remarks in overseas Chinese media, said the first lady had "reminded China in a polite and mild way that not allowing freedom of speech is not conducive in China."

Likewise, the first lady struck a careful balance Wednesday in choosing to eat at a Tibetan restaurant on the last day of her Chinese visit without making direct comment about the repression of minorities in China. Her staff said the visit to Zangxiang Teahouse, where she met Tibetan students, sampled traditional dishes and received a ceremonial scarf, was designed to implicitly underscore the first lady's support for the rights of minorities.

More than 100 people have self-immolated in ethnic Tibetan areas, including parts of Sichuan, since 2009 to protest Chinese restrictions on Buddhism and the denigration of the Tibetans' spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff to former first lady Laura Bush, said Mrs. Obama's restaurant visit was "a very careful way, without really embarrassing her hosts, to address the fact that we of course recognize that it's an issue." Similarly, McBride said, the first lady's commentary on freedom of expression and the like was "definitely within the safe zone" for a first lady abroad.

Recent first ladies have more directly addressed contentious matters while visiting China.

Laura Bush, who traveled to China with her husband in 2008 for the Olympic Games, flew to the Thai border with Myanmar to meet with refugees who fled a brutal campaign by the country's military junta. She also urged China to follow other countries and sanction Myanmar's generals.

In 1995, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton made her now famous declaration that "women's rights are human rights" at a United Nations women's conference in Beijing.

Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center, said Mrs. Obama's visit to China provided an "important shot of good will" to the U.S.-China relationship.

He said her unexpected comments in support of freedom of speech and information were delivered "in a way that was just really under the line" — without offending her host or damaging her ability to promote study-abroad programs and people-to-people ties.

In a video session this week with students in Beijing and California, Mrs. Obama told young people not to let fear keep them from experiencing new cultures.

She said her husband "has dragged me kicking and screaming into things that I wanted no parts of. And a lot of it was the fear — the fear of making mistakes, the fear of not knowing, the fear of uncertainty, the fear of leaving your comfort zone."

Mrs. Obama, who didn't initially want her husband to run for president and felt stung by criticism that she attracted during his first run for the White House, could just as well have been preaching to herself about stepping forward in her own role as first lady — without venturing too far outside her comfort zone.

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