Michelle Obama turns focus to education on China tour

US FIRST lady Michelle Obama brought the importance of education to the fore on the third day of a visit to China yesterday, where she has won praise for her approachability.

Michelle Obama and daughter Malia visit the Great Wall at Mutianyu. Picture: Getty

Mrs Obama, travelling with her two daughters, has been photographed at famous spots including the Forbidden City and Great Wall during the first independent trip by a US president’s wife to China.

She has won compliments for her elegant clothing and her interaction with ordinary people in a country where it is rare to see leaders’ spouses or children in public.

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“She is very warm and frank, and when she is talking to people she conscientiously listens to what they have to say,” said Wu Qing, a retired professor of Beijing Foreign Studies University who met Mrs Obama yesterday.

“In China, we usually use weather to express our mood or state of mind, so the fact that the weather has been so nice these few days means she is very welcome in China.”

Mrs Obama hosted a discussion about education with a handful of Chinese professors, students and parents, as well as the new US ambassador to China, Max Baucus, at the US embassy. In the afternoon, she visited part of the Great Wall in the northern Beijing suburbs with her daughters, 15-year-old Malia and 12-year-old Sasha, and her mother, Marian Robinson.

T-shirts of president Barack Obama in a Mao hat that are common at Beijing tourist sites were absent from souvenir stalls yesterday, although at least one vendor showed a whole box of them when asked.

The purpose of Mrs Obama’s week-long visit is to promote educational exchanges between the US and China, although she brought up a contentious issue on Saturday in a 15-minute speech at a university.

She said that freedom of speech and unfettered access to information make countries stronger and should be universal rights.

China has some of the world’s tightest restrictions on the internet and Mrs Obama’s comments were absent yesterday from state media but circulated in social media, where they were widely praised.

“I was very impressed by her speech mentioning freedom of speech,” said Zhang Lifan, an independent historian who said he had read about it in overseas Chinese media. “Although the Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of speech, Chinese citizens don’t really enjoy that right. I think she just reminded China in a polite and mild way that not allowing freedom of speech is not conducive to China.”

Mrs Obama returned to the safer territory of education yesterday.

“It’s personal, because I wouldn’t be where I am today without my parents investing and pushing me to get a good education,” she said.

“My parents were not educated themselves, but one of the things they understood was that my brother and I needed that foundation,” she said at the US embassy before hosting a discussion among professors, students and parents chosen by the embassy. The session was closed to the media.

During the private discussion, Mrs Obama asked about China’s college entrance exam and how easy it was for graduates to find work, and expressed hopes that society would pay more attention to the disabled and that more students from ethnic minorities would participate in exchanges between the two countries, according to a student at the meeting.

Mrs Obama on Friday toured an elite Beijing high school.