In a speech likely to raise eyebrows among the ruling Communist Party, Obama spoke at Peking University in Beijing yesterday during a week-long trip aimed at promoting educational exchanges between the US and China.
The trip also took on political overtones when she was granted a previously unscheduled meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping on Friday.
Obama said the free flow of information was 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 and silences dissenting voices.
Obama’s remarks may not draw any strong protest though, as her speech and a subsequent discussion with 50 students – sitting in two conference rooms in Beijing and California but connected via modern technology – focused mainly on the value of educational exchanges.
Eleanor Goodman from Harvard University said Obama probably “felt a need to make that statement” on freedom of information. “It was firm but not overbearing,” she said.
Sunny Ni, a Chinese student at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, said she had no problem accessing information for studies in China and the free flow of information was improving.
During the trip, the first time a US president’s wife has independently visited China, Obama has spent time with Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, a popular folk singer who holds a higher profile than her predecessors ever dared.