Michelle Obama touts cultural exchange and free speech

Michelle Obama became an ambassador for cultural exchange Saturday, taking her goodwill tour of China to the Stanford Center at Peking University to discuss the importance of study abroad and the free exchange of ideas.

In a 15-minute speech she delivered before a mix of American students studying at Peking University and Chinese students who have studied in the United States, she called on young people to be “citizen diplomats” and stressed the importance of the free flow of ideas over the Internet and through the media.

“That's how we discover the truth,” she said to the crowd of about 200, which included a handful of officials from major universities in the U.S. and China. “That’s how we learn what’s really happening in our communities, 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.”

On her second day of a week-long trip, Obama did not directly call out China, which regularly censors news Web sites and social media outlets, such as Twitter. Along with religious freedom and the opportunity for self expression, open access to information is a universal right, she said.

“My husband and I are on the receiving end of plenty of questioning and criticism from our media and our fellow citizens,” she said. “And it’s not always easy, but we wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”

The reference to Web access was brief, keeping with Obama's soft diplomacy and reluctance to become entangled in political tensions. The majority of her remarks centered around the value of study abroad programs, and a virtual question and answer session that followed linked a room of students in Beijing with students at Stanford’s Palo Alto campus.

The students, sitting in what appeared to be identical rooms with screens that spanned the width of the room, had all studied in other countries and described the benefit of learning a new culture. Too few students are having such experiences, said Obama.

More than 200,000 Chinese students are studying in the United States, but only 20,000 young Americans study in China every year. The Obama administration has set a goal of boosting that number to 100,000.

“Our hope is to build connections between people of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds, because it is that diversity that truly will change the face of our relationships,” said Obama, adding that because of her working-class background and focus on getting a job and helping her family, it never occurred to her to study overseas.

Max Baucus, who was recently installed as the U.S. Ambassador to China, praised Obama’s emphasis on study abroad programs saying one led him to a career in public policy. He studied six months in Tours, France, “not learning much” and then hitchhiked around the world for a year.

“Because of that trip I realized that the world is getting smaller and natural resources are diminishing,” he said.

Deng Junrui, a 19 year-old studying international relations at Peking, said Obama is right — China and the U.S. can learn from each other. “The American type of freedom may not be suitable for China, we have to find our own ways to develop, but [there is] nothing wrong to learn from each other,” said Deng, who wants to study in the U.S.

Obama’s visit has so far been well received. Crowds of locals lined the streets to snap pictures and wave to her motorcade as it travelled through the city.

She used a couple Mandarin phrases — “hello” and “thank you” — to open and close her remarks Saturday with beautiful pronunciation, according to native speakers, and said her husband has two regrets: quitting the guitar and not learning a second language.

“We’re sort of good at English,” she said of Americans, but need more exposure to other languages.

Liu Liu contributed to this report.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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