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Michelle Obama speaks out against censorship ... in China

First lady diplomacy given some edge in the Middle Kingdom

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Michelle Obama veered away from the usual niceties of matrimonial diplomacy on Saturday by arguing in a speech at Peking University that internet freedom should be a universal right.

FLOTUS is in China with her mother and daughters on a week-long tour designed to build closer ties between the world’s two superpowers and their respective leaders.

But she risked embarrassing her hosts with the speech to students at the university’s Stanford Centre, when she decided to opine on the topic of free speech.

Here are some of Obama's remarks:

I’m posting a daily travel blog with videos and photos of my experiences here in China, because I want young people in America to be part of this visit. And that’s really the power of technology –- how it can open up the entire world and expose us to ideas and innovations we never could have imagined.

And that’s why it’s so important for information and ideas to flow freely over the Internet and through the media, because that’s how we discover the truth. That’s how we learn what’s really happening in our communities and 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, by listening to all sides of an argument, and by judging for ourselves.

And believe me, I know how this can be a messy and frustrating process. 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 we wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. Because time and again, we have seen that countries are stronger and more prosperous when the voices of and opinions of all their citizens can be heard.

Obama's remarks are not a direct attack on the Middle Kingdom, of course, but it’s also not exactly a secret that the US and China don’t see eye-to-eye on issues of press freedom and state-sanctioned censorship.

Although the comments came from a speech which focused mainly on education and cultural exchange, declaring that open access to information is “the birthright of every person on this planet” will irk the current administration, which has overseen an unprecedented crackdown on internet freedom.

That said, it’s not as if the majority of Chinese people will know or care about Obama's speech. The controversial comments will not have been republished by state media and any mention by online users quickly expunged.

Even a student who heard Obama live at the event appeared mindful of the repercussions of sharing her thoughts.

“It was quite enlightening to hear about her experience and her struggle. But it's not convenient for me to talk about such issues," English student Mary Yan told The Guardian.

The comments were of course not intended solely for Obama’s Chinese hosts. Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan may also have been in the first lady’s thoughts as she spoke of internet freedom.

He ordered Twitter to be blocked in the republic late last week in response to an alleged smear campaign which threatens to disrupt election plans. ®

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