US first lady Michelle Obama plans to avoid politics and focus on education and people-to-people contacts on her first visit to China.
Her schedule includes a speech to Chinese and American students at Peking University and visits to the cities of Xian in the west and Chengdu in the southwest.
She was due to arrive yesterday, traveling with her mother and two daughters on the seven-day, three-city visit.
Obama is scheduled to spend today with Peng Liyuan (彭麗媛), the wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).
“I think this is a very good opportunity to improve China-US relations, as the first lady can represent the soft side of diplomacy,” said Wang Dong (王棟), a political scientist at Peking University’s School of International Studies.
“Michelle Obama herself has been accomplished in areas such as women’s rights, children issues and education, and I think members of the Chinese public are anticipating her visit with a positive attitude,” Wang said.
Obama intends to avoid contentious issues such as human rights, trade and cybersecurity, according to White House officials preparing the trip.
They said she would use her personal stories to express US values. On Tuesday, she is due to visit a high school in Chengdu.
“Her focus on people-to-people relations, her focus on education and youth empowerment is one that we believe will resonate in China,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy US national security adviser, told reporters ahead of the visit. “We also believe it’s a message that is really fundamentally in the interest of the United States.”
The first lady and her family will also visit the imperial palace and Great Wall in Beijing. While in Xian, she plans to visit ancient city walls and the Terra Cotta Warriors Museum. In Chendgu, she is scheduled to visit a panda conservation center.
The trip provides an opportunity for US President Barack Obama and Xi to cultivate a personal relationship through their wives, following their meeting in Sunnylands, California, last year.
“Such a personal relationship with mutual trust is crucial, as the China-US relationship has entered a more challenging phase,” Wang said.
Her host is Xi’s wife, who accompanied Xi on the Sunnylands visit, but did not meet the first lady, who stayed in Washington. Her absence left some Chinese grumbling, and this visit allows the first lady to make up for it.
“I think this provides a natural reason to stay engaged” before Xi and Obama can meet again, Wang said.
The trip also gives Peng unusual prominence in a Chinese official culture that usually keeps leaders’ spouses in the background.
Peng, a popular folk singer, was better known than Xi before he became Communist Party leader and president.
“She has a good presence on television,” said Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “This is a formidable soft power China can use to show the world that China is not a monolithic society.”