UK & World News

  • 23 March 2014, 0:09

Michelle Obama Tackles Human Rights In China

The US first lady has touched on human rights concerns during a visit to China, but stopped short of levelling any criticism against Beijing itself.

Michelle Obama briefly set aside her policy of 'soft diplomacy' on Saturday to give a speech advocating freedom of expression and open access to information.

She told a group of some 200 students at Beijing's prestigious Peking University that universal rights should not be dependent on a person's country of birth.

"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 birth right of every person on this planet," she said.

"It is so important for information and ideas to flow freely over the internet and through the media.

"My husband and I are on the receiving end of plenty of questioning and criticism from our media and our fellow citizens, and it's not always easy... but I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world."

Obama has generally sought to steer clear of complicated political issues during her week-long visit to China and instead focus on building goodwill through soft diplomacy.

As such she was careful to avoid calling on China directly to offer its citizens greater freedoms. 

Censorship in Chinese media and online is widespread, with the so-called Great Firewall of China blocking access to any sites which touch on sensitive topics. 

The ruling Communist Party is quick to crack down on any signs of political dissent and deletes all material it considers objectionable. 

There are also concerns over China's treatment of religious groups, with regular reports of members of "underground churches" being arrested. 

The first lady also used her speech on Saturday to offer her condolences to the friends and relatives of some of the 239 passengers on board the missing MH370 Malaysia Airlines flight, the majority of whom are Chinese.

Obama said the US was committed to offering as many resources to the search as possible.

She said: "Please know that we are keeping all of the families and loved ones of those on this flight in our thoughts and in our prayers at this very difficult time."

Obama arrived in Beijing on Thursday accompanied by her two daughters and mother.  

Their trip has already taken them to Beijing's Summer Palace and China's historic Forbidden City.

A visit to the northern city of Xi'an, home to the famed Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, and to a panda breeding facility outside Chengdu in southwestern China are also on the agenda.

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