UI Chinese students react to Michelle Obama's free speech remarks

By Lily Abromeit, The Daily Iowan

Before coming to the United States, Shen Xingyu heard the rumors that it was a place of unfettered free speech where he could speak his mind and not be punished.

However for the University of Iowa freshman, it didn’t seem much different from his native China.

In China, he said, free-speech rights are getting “better and better.”

As first lady Michelle Obama wraps up her weeklong tour of China this week, many are discussing her trip focused on education as well as the remarks she made earlier in the week about free speech.

During a stop on the tour, Obama focused on the importance of free speech, saying it is necessary for understanding everything from communities to countries to the world. She also said it allows for debates and discussion, which provides for opportunities for people to decide their own ideas and opinions.

Brian Lai, a UI associate professor of political science, said her comments were right in line with the current U.S. approach to handling Chinese censorship of the media and Internet.

“The general U.S. policy [is] we would like China to have more openness in terms of journalism and more openness in terms of Internet freedom,” Lai said.

The openness is exactly what UI junior Liqi Wang, who is also from China, hopes to see as well.

“In our laws, it’s declared that Chinese people have the rights to have free speech, but in actuality [they do] not; it should change,” he said. “Since I have been [in the United States] for three years, I don’t see Americans complaining that they don’t have any free speech rights, but in China … people are very careful about talking about some politics or something else.”

Wang said some changes are visible in the Chinese society, but more information and knowledge is necessary for the system to grow.

“The new media have already been developed, [so] people are not as afraid, [and] they are beginning to talk about their feelings and ideas,” he said. “But the other thing is they don’t know some facts, but they [still] talk about some parts of the issues [but don’t have] the whole view of the issue.”

While Wang said he thinks free-speech rights in China are beginning to broaden, he does not think the government in the country will encourage the change.

“The new developed media indeed shocked the original review mechanisms, but the core areas of free speech is still locked tightly,” he said.

Lai said Obama’s remarks will be unlikely to yield any immediate change on a governmental level but said the citizens could take matters into their own hands.

“I don’t anticipate the central government changing regulations over the press or regulations over the Internet,” he said. “I think [the Chinese citizens] are beginning to use it in a way that will circumvent the Internet restriction that exists in China.”

Despite these remarks, Lai said, the most important part of the trip was to encourage dialogue between China and the United States when it comes to education.

Wang said he was happy with the non-political trip, because it was a chance to focus on China’s educational system, something he thinks needs attention.

“Our educational system still needs to be improved,” he said in an email. “We also need to learn more advanced things from America. This is a kind of direct [exchange of] educational ideas … between two countries.”

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