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In China, Michelle Obama touts freedom of speech, religion

US First Lady Michelle Obama delivers a speech at Peking University in Beijing, on March 22, 2014
US First Lady Michelle Obama delivers a speech at Peking University in Beijing, on March 22, 2014

US First Lady Michelle Obama on Saturday emphasised the importance of universal rights, telling a crowd of students in Beijing that freedom of expression and religion should not be determined by one's country of birth.

Obama, who is on a week-long trip to China with her daughters and mother, has sought to focus on "soft" issues since her arrival in Beijing Thursday night, playing table tennis with students and touring the Forbidden City with her Chinese counterpart, Peng Liyuan.

But she briefly trod political ground in her Saturday morning speech at Peking University's Stanford Centre, calling for greater freedoms while refraining from calling out China by name.

"As my husband has said, we respect the uniqueness of other cultures and societies," Obama told a crowd of about 200 students, most of whom were from the US.

"But 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 said.

"We believe that all people deserve the opportunity to fulfil their highest potential as I was able to do in the United States."

Obama's words echoed remarks made last December by US Vice President Joe Biden, who told a group of American business leaders in Beijing that China "will be stronger and more stable and more innovative if it respects universal human rights".

- Crackdown on political content online -

A huge crowd of onlookers try to take photos as US First Lady Michelle Obama (not pictured) arrives at the Summer Palace in Beijing, on March 22, 2014
A huge crowd of onlookers try to take photos as US First Lady Michelle Obama (not pictured) arrives at the Summer Palace in Beijing, on March 22, 2014

China's ruling Communist Party authorities are quick to crack down on political dissent, with a "Great Firewall of China" blocking access to Internet sites deemed sensitive and a vast censorship machine that swiftly deletes content considered objectionable.

Earlier this month, Chinese Internet giant Tencent shut down several accounts on its popular instant messaging platform WeChat in what appeared to be part of a broader crackdown on political content.

Campaigners have also criticised China's treatment of religious groups, with detentions of members of "underground" churches common and tensions with Tibetan Buddhists and Muslim Uighurs particularly fraught.

As Obama delivered her remarks in Beijing, thousands of mourners in Shanghai were gathering Saturday morning to bid farewell to Catholic Bishop Joseph Fan Zhongliang, who died last Sunday at age 97.

China has a state-controlled Catholic church, which rejects the Vatican's authority, as well as an "underground" church, of which Fan was a part.

The bishop's loyalty to the Vatican earned him decades of imprisonment, and Fan remained under house arrest until his death.

The Communist Party maintains that Chinese citizens enjoy broad freedoms of speech and religious expression.

- '100,000 Strong' initiative -

US First Lady Michelle Obama (centre) applauds as she watches a performance of the Beijing Opera at the Summer Palace in Beijing, on March 22, 2014
US First Lady Michelle Obama (centre) applauds as she watches a performance of the Beijing Opera at the Summer Palace in Beijing, on March 22, 2014

While Obama touched on the issue of rights, she devoted the bulk of her speech to encouraging American students to study abroad in China.

She touted the "100,000 Strong" initiative announced by President Obama during his 2009 visit to Beijing. The programme aims to increase the number as well as the socioeconomic diversity of Americans studying in China.

Currently, more than 200,000 Chinese students are studying in the United States, while only 20,000 Americans are studying in China, according to the White House.

Pointing to her own family's working-class background, she told the crowd that "it never occurred to me to study abroad -- never."

"And I know for a lot of young people like me who are struggling to afford a regular semester of school, paying for plane tickets or living expenses halfway around the world just isn't possible," she said.

"And that's not acceptable, because study abroad shouldn’t just be for students from certain backgrounds," she added.

After her speech, Obama held a virtual roundtable with a group of American students and then took a tour with her family of the Summer Palace, the picturesque former imperial getaway not far from Peking University.

There, the Obamas once again took up the "soft" focus of their trip, meeting with a group of visiting American middle schoolers and taking in a traditional Chinese dance performance under the uncharacteristically sunny Beijing skies.