First Lady Michelle Obama will begin a six-day tour of China tomorrow, her third overseas trip without Barack Obama since he became president in 2009. Her itinerary will include visits to historical and cultural landmarks and schools, meetings with Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan and talks intended to promote soft diplomacy between the two countries.
Discussion about China’s spotty human rights record or other criticism will be absent.
Obama will be accompanied by her daughters, Malia and Sasha, as well as her mother, Marian Robinson.
“Traveling with three generations… [is] a subtle gesture to traditional Chinese values,” said CBS. “White House officials are calling this visit a ‘people to people’ trip.”
The first leg of Obama’s trip will be spent in Beijing. Together with Peng, the first ladies will visit a local school and the Forbidden City district before enjoying a private dinner performance.
Spending time with her Chinese counterpart will be an important highlight of Obama’s whirlwind tour, especially after the U.S. first lady “snubbed” Peng during a visit to California last June. While the Chinese delegation met with the U.S. president in Palm Springs, Michelle Obama elected to remain in Washington with her daughters.
“The meeting between the two first ladies proves that some previous rumors [about Michelle's absence] are groundless,” Zhizhou Zhang, a research fellow at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, told the South China Morning Post. “Michelle’s visit shows their husbands have mutual trust.”
Zhang added that both first ladies are perceived as fashion icons in their respective countries, with both deeply involved in cultural and educational issues. While photos of Michelle Obama are a staple in American media, Chinese censors block any discussion of Peng’s wardrobe.
In addition to meeting Peng, Obama will also deliver a speech to students at the prestigious Peking University. Other tourist destinations for the Obama family will include the Great Wall of China, the Terracotta Warriors Museum in Xi’an and the Chengdu Panda Base.
“[Obama’s visit] is a critical opportunity to build connections with the Chinese leadership and also the Chinese public,” said U.S. deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes. “Her visit and her agenda send a message that the relationship between the United States and China is not just between leaders; it’s a relationship between peoples… What the first lady really brings is the power of her own story, the power of American values.”
Critics have stated that the soft diplomacy focus ignores issues that have caused friction between the superpowers, primarily China’s human rights record.
In 1995, former first lady Hillary Clinton – speaking at a conference in Beijing – called on Chinese officials to “accept their responsibility to protect and promote internationally-recognized human rights.”