In China, Michelle Obama touts freedom of speech, religion

BEIJING - US First Lady Michelle Obama on Saturday emphasised the importance of universal rights, telling a crowd of students in Beijing that freedom of expression and religion should not be determined by one's country of birth.

Obama, who is on a week-long trip to China with her daughters and mother, has sought to focus on "soft" issues since her arrival in Beijing Thursday night, playing table tennis with students and touring the Forbidden City with her Chinese counterpart, Peng Liyuan.

But she briefly trod political ground in her Saturday morning speech at Peking University's Stanford Centre, calling for greater freedoms while refraining from calling out China by name.

"When it comes to expressing yourself freely, and worshipping as you choose, and having open access to information - we believe those are universal rights that are the birthright of every person on this planet," Obama told a crowd of about 200 students, most of whom were from the US.

Her words echoed remarks made last December by US Vice President Joe Biden, who told a group of American business leaders in Beijing that China "will be stronger and more stable and more innovative if it respects universal human rights".

China's ruling Communist Party authorities are quick to crack down on political dissent, with a "Great Firewall of China" blocking access to Internet sites deemed sensitive and a vast censorship machine that swiftly deletes content considered objectionable.

Earlier this month, Chinese Internet giant Tencent shut down several accounts on its popular instant messaging platform WeChat in what appeared to be part of a broader crackdown on political content.

Campaigners have also criticised China's treatment of religious groups, with detentions of members of "underground" churches common and tensions with Tibetan Buddhists and Muslim Uighurs particularly fraught.

The Communist Party maintains that Chinese citizens enjoy broad freedoms of speech and religious expression.