US first lady Michelle Obama yesterday took her daughters and mother to Beijing’s former imperial palace, on a China tour the White House emphazises will be light on politics and heavy on personal diplomacy.
Obama, her daughters, Malia and Sasha, and her mother, Marian Robinson, along with China’s own first lady, Peng Liyuan (彭麗媛), took a guided tour of the sprawling Forbidden City, waving to onlookers outside the central pavilion known as the Hall of Supreme Harmony.
The visit is Obama’s first to China, and her third foreign trip without the US president since moving into the White House.
Beijing and Washington have hailed the week-long tour as an opportunity for both first ladies to highlight the importance of education and “people-to-people” exchange. However, critics in the US have lambasted signals that human rights are off the agenda — although Obama is scheduled to eat at a Tibetan restaurant in Chengdu — and the cost to taxpayers, which the White House has declined to reveal.
Obama, her family and Peng began with an hour-long visit to the No. 2 High School Attached to Beijing Normal University, where they observed students learning how to build robots, visited a calligraphy class and dropped in on a group of pupils playing table tennis.
The two first ladies smiled broadly and shook hands on a red carpet in front of the school — their first-ever meeting — as students around them waved flags.
Obama told Peng that it was “truly an honor and a privilege” to visit China with her family.
Peng said it was “a great delight” to meet her, saying: “In China, we have an ancient idiom, which means when two people meet for the first time, they may feel as if they have known each other for many years.”
At the school’s Geometry Robotics Lab, students demonstrated their machines for the first ladies and Obama tried her hand at operating one by remote control.
Obama exchanged a few table tennis strokes with a young woman, and told the crowd she was a novice.
“My husband plays,” she added. “He thinks he’s better than he really is.”
At a calligraphy demonstration a 16-year-old student taught Obama how to draw the Chinese character for “eternity,” before the visitors looked on as Peng wrote out a four-character aphorism meaning “Great virtue promotes growth.”
She signed her name and presented the calligraphy to Obama as a souvenir.
Later, at the Forbidden City, they saw a number of sites not open to the general public, including the Hall of Earthly Tranquility, which used to house the emperor’s concubines.
Both women’s fashion choices were a hot topic on the microblogging site Sina Weibo, with some Chinese Internet users favorably comparing Peng’s formal attire — a navy blue jacket and skirt — to Obama’s more casual black trousers, vest and white silk shirt.
“Michelle’s clothing is too old-fashioned,” one Weibo user wrote. “China 1, US 0.”