Michelle Obama champions freedom of expression at Peking University

US first lady Michelle Obama (L) is greeted by student Zhu Xuanhao before giving a speech at the Peking University in Beijing on March 22, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
US first lady Michelle Obama (L) is greeted by student Zhu Xuanhao before giving a speech at the Peking University in Beijing on March 22, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
US first lady Michelle Obama claps as she gives a speech at the Peking University in Beijing on March 22, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
US first lady Michelle Obama (R) receives a book given by Peking University Communist Party Secretary Zhu Shanlu, during her visit at the Peking University in Beijing on March 22, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
US first lady Michelle Obama participates in a discussion with students at the Stanford Center at Peking University in Beijing on March 22, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

UNITED States First Lady Michelle Obama stepped out for her second full-day in Beijing stressing the importance of education - in particularly studying abroad - as well as encouraging young adults to embrace freedom of speech, which she said is a "birthright".

She also noted the stake the US and China have in one another's success.

At the Stanford Centre at Peking University (PKU) - a partnership between two of the most prestigious universities in the US and China respectively - on Saturday morning, Mrs Obama talked about the importance of freedom of speech and the importance of ideas flowing freely over the Internet and through the media.

"When it comes to expressing yourself freely, and worshipping as you choose, and having open access to information - we believe those are universal rights that are the birthright of every person on this planet," she told an audience of about 200 US and Chinese students.

But she stopped short of calling on China to offer its citizens greater freedom.

She also spoke about the value of student foreign exchanges.

"We view study abroad programmes not just an educational opportunity for students... but also as a vital part of America's foreign policy."

"Studying abroad isn't just a fun way to spend a semester -it's quickly becoming the key to success in our global economy. Because getting ahead in today's workplaces isn't just about getting good grades or test scores in school, which are important... it's also about having real experience with the world beyond your borders - experience with languages, cultures and societies very different from your own," she said.

Mrs Obama also noted how research breakthroughs in China and the US could help the other.

Medical related discoveries in China could help Americans while clean energy research in California's Silicon Valley could help China improve its environment, she said, according to the Twitter-like Sina Weibo account of PKU New Media.

Mrs Obama later also attended a video conference involving about 30 participants in Beijing and 30 at Stanford in California.

Much of the session was taken up by testimonials from the students on their experiences, and the value of studying abroad.

Mrs Obama encouraged them to not give in to fear, saying it was important "not letting fear be your guide… that's what holds young people back."

"My husband dragged me kicking and screaming into things I wanted no part of." "A lot of it was fear," she said as an explanation of her initial reluctance.

Professor Wang Enge, the president of Peking University, said he would welcome Mrs Obama's two daughters - teenagers Sasha and Malia - to enroll at the university in future.

Much attention continued to be on what the stylish Harvard-educated lawyer wore.

On Saturday, Mrs Obama was dressed in a knee-length white dress with colourful print design.

On Friday evening, she wore a lacy red dress at a dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse.

Her getup won praise after a casual black and white loose-fitting ensemble earlier in the day led to some critics panning it as "one of her worst outfits".

Mrs Obama is locked in a media-fuelled "fashion showdown" with her Chinese counterpart Madam Peng, one of China's most famed folk singer who was hugely popular even before her husband came to power.

Mrs Obama's red dress, paired with matching red kitten heels, was designed by Indian-American designer Naeem Khan.

Similarly, 12-year-old Sasha also wore a red frock to Friday's dinner, although she paired her number with black tights and silver flats. Malia, 15, wore a high-waisted skirt and matching crop shirt.

Madam Peng wore what appeared to be a modern twist on a traditional Chinese dress. It was black with a slit in the back and with embroidery along the sides. She paired it with high open toe pumps.

In their first ever meeting, both ladies spent a full day together on Friday visiting the Beijing Normal School, a high school that prepares students for university education abroad, before heading to the Forbidden City, in the hopes that building on personal relationships can indirectly lift bilateral ties.

Mrs Obama, who started her week-long trip to China on Thursday together with her mother and daughters, will also travel to Xi'an and Chengdu.

Not since First Lady Nancy Reagan was photographed in the 1980s with her counterpart, the stylish Raisa Gorbachev of the former Soviet Union, has a US First Lady's meeting with the spouse of a foreign head of state attracted so much attention.

Mrs Obama's visit has been the focus of the Chinese press and social media in recent days.

"Given that first ladies are unique ambassadors for the United States, the trip stands out as a stroke of 'gentle diplomacy' on the part of Washington," the state-run Xinhua news agency wrote in a recent commentary.

"Moreover, a strengthened personal bond between the first families of China and the United States will naturally help generate better understanding and more common ground between Beijing and Washington."

On social media, "Michelle Obama" became the eighth most searched term on Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblog service.

But while the visit seemed politically light with sensitive issues like human rights strictly off the table, some netizens said that despite the attention on wardrobe choices, the meeting was more than just a fashion parade.

Said Sina Weibo user "rumeng": "This is a historical meeting of the First Ladies and so, in turn, it must also have a historic results. I sincerely hope this visit can add weight to the Sino-US relationship."

On her travel blog at whitehouse.gov, Mrs Obama described her first full day in China, stressing the warm reception her family had received.

"As my family and I can attest from our time together at the Beijing Normal School, Madam Peng is a warm and gracious host," she wrote.

"And this visit was a perfect opportunity to highlight the themes of my trip: the value of education and the importance of cultural exchanges between young people in different countries."

Madam Peng left on Saturday with Mr Xi on an 11-day official tour to four European countries.


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