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First lady Michelle Obama to discuss importance of open Internet in China

First lady Michelle Obama begins a week-long visit to China aimed at forging educational and cultural ties. (Reuters)

— On the heels of a meeting here with China’s president and his wife, Michelle Obama on Saturday will discuss the importance of the free exchange of ideas on the Internet, gently rebuking China by comparing its practices with those in the United States.

The U.S. first lady will also broach the issue of censorship from a personal vantage point — discussing the criticism that surfaces about herself and her husband as part of the robust public dialogue in the United States, aides said.

“It can be messy,” said Tina Tchen, the first lady’s chief of staff. “She and her husband have certainly experienced it but would not trade it for the world.”

The planned remarks at Peking University illustrate Obama’s decidedly soft-diplomacy approach during her week-long trip to China, sending gentle messages on a few thorny issues while avoiding any hint of lecturing.

The first lady made clear from the start that she had not come to China to raise political dander or give a speech about tensions between the two nations. She is “not a lecturer in any setting,” Tchen said, adding that Obama plans to speak from her own experience.

It is a fine line to walk in a country where online services such as Twitter are made inaccessible and news Web sites are routinely blocked.

Cheng Li, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, said he hopes Obama will find a way to discuss American values without embarrassing the Chinese, attempting persuasion through personality.

“Humiliation or lecturing the Chinese in the public domain are things we should avoid,” Li said. “You will make the Chinese very suspicious and angry. It humiliates the nation, the general public.”

But human rights activists wonder whether Obama’s subtle message will be loud enough to get through. Hu Jia, a dissident who has been arrested for participating in protests, said he would like Obama to be bolder and meet with someone such as Liu Xia, the wife of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, one of China’s most well-known democracy activists.

“As the promoter of American values, and the wife of the Nobel Peace Prize winner, a public figure who attracts tremendous attention, maybe visiting Liu Xia is too much because it may damage the U.S.-China relations, but she can ask someone to send an invitation to invite Liu Xia [to] an event she hosted,” Hu said. “It doesn’t cost much, but a little gesture like that may be a great help.”

But Obama, who is in China to discuss education and cultural exchange, is rarely diverted from her agenda. Human rights issues are for other diplomatic channels, Obama administration officials have said. Michelle Obama and her team have determined that pointing out the flaws of the Chinese Internet censorship system fits into that declared focus.

Teng Biao, an activist lawyer, wants to hear Obama make clear that censorship problems in China go beyond merely blocking some Web sites. “Online users have been indicted because of what they say — because they revealed corruption, criticized the government and the official polices or revealed the history,” Teng said.

Aside from the call for an open exchange of ideas in China, Obama will also broach controversy with her decision to visit a Tibetan restaurant in Chengdu next week. The dinner has been widely linked to U.S. criticism of Chinese rule in Tibet and to President Obama’s meeting last month with the Dalai Lama, the region’s exiled leader, which Chinese officials opposed.

“She wanted to have the opportunity to visit with that community,” a senior White House official said of Michelle Obama’s decision to eat there.

Comments on the Web site Weibo about Obama’s plan to go to the Tibetan restaurant appeared on Friday to have been deleted.

The first lady, who arrived here Thursday, began her official slate of events Friday by meeting with President Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, who hosted Obama for the day. The two women visited the ancient Forbidden City, had dinner and watched a cultural performance at Diaoyutai­ State Guesthouse. Earlier in the day, they toured a high school that has a relationship with Sidwell Friends — the private school attended by Obama’s daughters, Sasha and Malia, who also are on the China trip.

While at Beijing Normal School, Michelle Obama gamely played table tennis with an instructor and a student, lasting about five minutes.

“I tried my hand at Ping-Pong,” she told Xi later in the day. “Not so good.”

Xi smiled in response.

William Wan, Liu Liu and Gu Jinglu contributed to this report.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.

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