President Obama held a town-hall forum with Chinese students at the Museum of Science and Technology in Shanghai, and, during lengthy opening remarks, he touched on a topic that has given consternation to American diplomats in China before: human rights.

At the end of some discourse on American principles and belief in freedom around the world, Obama said: "America will always speak out for these core principles around the world...These freedoms of expression and worship -- of access to information and political participation -- we believe are universal rights.  They should be available to all people, including ethnic and religious minorities -- whether they are in the United States, China, or any nation."

While it may not seem like much--uttered anywhere else in the world, an almost passing reference to religious equality could me taken as milquetoast repetition of a general American ideal--but in China, where the government censors speech and locks up protesters for criticizing the ruling party's treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, it's worth noting. Especially since the U.S. relationship with China is such a critical one, and since China is so sensitive about the topic.

When Hillary Clinton went there in February, she made headlines by saying that Chinese human rights "can't interfere" with other issues--despite calls in the U.S. for her to raise it directly with her Chinese counterparts. Such is the precarious nature of U.S./Chinese interactions when it comes to human rights. Clinton did pledge, at the time, that the U.S. would continue to press China on the issue generally, and on Tibet (where the Chinese government quelled protests earlier this year), and that seems to be a part, at least, of what Obama was doing by bringing up this topic in his opening remarks at a town hall--careful not to back away from an articulation of human rights principles, if not actually pressing the Chinese government to do things differently.

Here's the full context in which he brought it up. Note the long buildup, mentions of slavery and America's struggles in living up to its own ideals, the declaration that America doesn't seek to impose forms of government on other nations, and the ensuing declaration that it sees its founding principles as universal.

From the White House's transcript:

Those [founding] documents put forward a simple vision of human affairs, and they enshrine several core principles -- that all men and women are created equal, and possess certain fundamental rights; that government should reflect the will of the people and respond to their wishes; that commerce should be open, information freely accessible; and that laws, and not simply men, should guarantee the administration of justice.

Of course, the story of our nation is not without its difficult chapters.  In many ways -- over many years -- we have struggled to advance the promise of these principles to all of our people, and to forge a more perfect union.  We fought a very painful civil war, and freed a portion of our population from slavery.  It took time for women to be extended the right to vote, workers to win the right to organize, and for immigrants from different corners of the globe to be fully embraced.  Even after they were freed, African Americans persevered through conditions that were separate and not equal, before winning full and equal rights.

None of this was easy.  But we made progress because of our belief in those core principles, which have served as our compass through the darkest of storms.  That is why Lincoln could stand up in the midst of civil war and declare it a struggle to see whether any nation, conceived in liberty, and "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" could long endure. That is why Dr. Martin Luther King could stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and ask that our nation live out the true meaning of its creed.  That's why immigrants from China to Kenya could find a home on our shores; why opportunity is available to all who would work for it; and why someone like me, who less than 50 years ago would have had trouble voting in some parts of America, is now able to serve as its President.

And that is why America will always speak out for these core principles around the world.   We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation, but we also don't believe that the principles that we stand for are unique to our nation.  These freedoms of expression and worship -- of access to information and political participation -- we believe are universal rights.  They should be available to all people, including ethnic and religious minorities -- whether they are in the United States, China, or any nation.  Indeed, it is that respect for universal rights that guides America's openness to other countries; our respect for different cultures; our commitment to international law; and our faith in the future.

These are all things that you should know about America.  I also know that we have much to learn about China.  Looking around at this magnificent city -- and looking around this room -- I do believe that our nations hold something important in common, and that is a belief in the future.  Neither the United States nor China is content to rest on our achievements.  For while China is an ancient nation, you are also clearly looking ahead with confidence, ambition, and a commitment to see that tomorrow's generation can do better than today's.

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