First lady gets personal in China trip's politics

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CHENGDU, China -- Michelle Obama's weeklong trip to China seemed to start as a spring break holiday with her mother and daughters but has turned out to be far more substantive -- and political -- than what the cheerful advocate of fitness and healthful eating often displays at home.

At a Chengdu high school Tuesday, Mrs. Obama pointedly told students that the U.S. championed "the right to say what we think and worship as we choose," even as she conceded that Americans still lived those ideals imperfectly and that minorities had struggled to overcome a legacy of discrimination.

"Many decades ago, there were actually laws in America that allowed discrimination against black people like me, who are a minority in the United States," Mrs. Obama said in a speech at the Number 7 school. "But over time, ordinary citizens decided that those laws were unfair. So they held peaceful protests and marches."

Slowly but surely, Mrs. Obama said to her rapt young Chinese audience, America changed, and "today, 50 years later, my husband and I are president and first lady of the United States."

It was the second time in four days that Mrs. Obama spoke openly about free expression and minority rights -- messages that resonate in a society where the Internet is censored and the central government ruthlessly represses Tibetans and other ethnic minorities.

Although her remarks have been less thunderous than the call for women's rights delivered by Hillary Rodham Clinton as first lady in Beijing in 1995, Mrs. Obama has been more intimate in bringing her own personal story to China. On Tuesday, for example, she told students about her uphill journey from the South Side of Chicago to Princeton and Harvard Law School, both coveted destinations for the children of China's elite.

On Saturday at the Stanford Center of Peking University, Mrs. Obama spoke of free expression, particularly on the Internet, as the essential ingredient of a prosperous society, and on Sunday she met with a blind man during a roundtable discussion at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing to promote opportunities for those with disabilities.

At every stop, she has pushed the idea that excellent education should be for all, not just the rich -- a theme that is familiar in her appearances in the U.S. but strikes a different chord here.

Mrs. Obama may also have corrected some misimpressions of the U.S., including the view in China that U.S. education is easy and fun compared with the drill-oriented, exam-cramming Chinese school system. When she was aiming to get into a top college, the first lady recalled, she sometimes woke up before dawn to study.


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