BEIJING – U.S. first lady Michelle Obama promoted ethnic equality, the civil rights movement and religious freedom in China on Tuesday, raising the sensitive issues on a tour meant to avoid politics.
“In America, we believe that no matter where you live or how much money your parents have — or what race or religion or ethnicity you are — if you work hard and believe in yourself, then you should have a chance to succeed,” she said.
“We also believe that everyone is equal, and that we all have the right to say what we think and worship as we choose,” she said.
“Now of course, living up to these ideals isn’t always easy,” she added.
The first lady cited herself, NBA star Lebron James and Starbucks executive Howard Shultz as examples of people with modest backgrounds succeeding, during her 15-minute presentation at Chengdu No. 7 High School in Sichuan province.
Her speech, on the last leg of a six-day, three-city tour of China, was delivered to a stadium of 700 students as well as to 12,000 rural students through satellite-enabled distance-learning technology.
The elite high school has a reputation for using such technology to bring quality education to impoverished remote regions. Many of its graduates also pursue college education in the United States.
Obama later held a question-and-answer session with 20,000 students piped in via satellite technology before she observed a student demonstration of the traditional Chinese exercise regime tai chi and tried a few moves.
Sichuan and other provinces neighboring Tibet are home to a minority of Tibetans, an ethnic group that rights activists say faces religious and cultural repression, underscored by more than 120 self-immolation protests by Tibetans in recent years.
China rejects such criticism and blames the acts on separatist forces led by the Tibetan spiritual leader-in-exile and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the Dalai Lama.
Obama, who is traveling with her mother and two daughters, is scheduled to eat at a Tibetan restaurant in Chengdu on Wednesday, according to a White House itinerary.
The first lady cited herself and President Barack Obama as beneficiaries of the civil rights movement — a sensitive issue in China, which quashes popular protest.
“Over time, ordinary citizens decided that those laws were unfair,” she said of the 1960s movement to denounce racial segregation in the United States and demand equal rights for African-Americans.
“So they held peaceful protests and marches. They called on government officials to change those laws, and they voted to elect new officials who shared their views.
“And, slowly but surely, America changed,” she said. “We got rid of those unjust laws. And today, just 50 years later, my husband and I are president and first lady of the United States.”
Since arriving in Beijing on Thursday night for a weeklong trip, the first lady has met with her counterpart, Peng Liyuan, visited popular tourist sites such as the Great Wall, and spoken to Chinese students and educators.
U.S. officials have cast the trip as focused on “soft” issues such as education.
Obama met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday, before Xi flew to The Hague for a nuclear security summit and held a meeting with Obama’s husband on Monday.
At the nuclear summit Monday, Xi told the U.S. president that the United States should adopt a “fair” attitude on the East and South China Seas, where Beijing is involved in a series of increasingly bitter territorial disputes, including with Tokyo over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands.