An analysis of Michelle Obama’s trip to China

As Michelle Obama returns from her trip to China, here's a look back at the most memorable moments from her journey. (JulieAnn McKellogg/The Washington Post)

Michelle Obama’s team billed her visit to China, with her daughters and mother tagging along, as a goodwill tour unconnected to the political tensions that complicate the relationship between the global superpowers.

It turned out to be a somewhat more substantive swing through this massive country than expected, displaying Obama’s deft ability to mix diplomacy with her personal narrative. Before flying home late Wednesday afternoon, she had raised the issues of minority rights, Internet access and religious freedom, all while charming the Chinese public by skipping rope, practicing tai chi with high school students and declaring herself awed by the nation’s ancient tourist sites.

Her final stop was at a restaurant in a province near China’s border with Tibet in a silent expression of her support for that community.

“I would argue that her approach was more effective” than lecturing, a senior White House official said, speaking on background to explain the thinking behind Obama’s tact. “There wasn’t any one thing to censor.”

Obama’s visit flooded China’s airwaves and state and independent newspapers. The U.S. Embassy here tracked the views of videos, photos and stories of the first lady and said they had reached 1 billion.

Michelle Obama’s official visit came 19 years after Hillary Clinton gave a historic speech at the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, where she equated women’s rights to human rights and condemned the practice of forced abortions. Obama, who dislikes comparisons to her predecessors, did not see herself competing with Clinton’s forceful rebuke.

Publicly, she’s a honey-not-vinegar first lady, more prone to give a short, warm speech than make bold pronouncements. Put another way, she is more likely to hold up an apple than throw red meat.

Clinton’s remarks became a feminist credo, but they were not aired in China. Obama’s more careful speech at Peking University’s Stanford Center was posted in full on Weibo, a Twitter-like service here. And China’s Ministry of Information chose not to censor it.

She called for open access to information — a major issue in China, where news is censored and Web sites are routinely blocked. But Obama did so in such a way that her remarks, which were mostly about encouraging students to study abroad, came coated in careful language and personal asides.

Obama spoke of the open exchange of ideas as “messy” and did not directly call out China. “My husband and I are on the receiving end of plenty of questioning and criticism from our media and our fellow citizens,” she said. “And it’s not always easy, but we wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”

John Thornton, a former president of Goldman Sachs who is director of Global Leadership at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said that he has not always given the Obama administration positive reviews but found the first lady’s speech “pitch-perfect” for China, where sincerity paves the way for connections.

“It was very direct, but it was respectful, and it was said in a manner that allowed the audience to take it in,” Thornton said. “It really wasn’t saying, ‘And by the way, you should be this way, too.’ You could choose to be this way, but it wasn’t as if it were mandatory.”

The East Wing strategy was to do what the first lady does domestically: talk about her own experiences, views and values. Rather than pushing healthy eating and exercise, as she does at home, she talked about how she had benefited from the U.S. civil rights movement, come from a working-class family and gone on to elite universities.

Her emphasis on overcoming class divides and minority issues is especially salient as the Chinese grapple with their own rural and urban striation and construct an idea of the “China Dream.” During a lively exchange near the end of her trip, giddy students at a high school in Chengdu, China’s fourth-largest city, asked Obama questions about creativity and competitiveness in education.

“I hope you understand . . . that your education, first and foremost, is for you,” Obama said. “You have to have it in your mind that everything you’re doing is, first and foremost, for yourself and your own development.”

Even that message, soft as it was, had the potential to be provocative in China’s culture of rigid standardized testing that often determines the arc of a student’s career.

For Chinese officials, Obama’s visit also broke ground in first lady diplomacy. For the first time, a leader’s wife invited a U.S. first lady for a visit. Peng Liyuan, who has styled herself after Western first ladies by taking on causes and representing China abroad, spent a full day with Obama trotting through the Forbidden City, an ancient imperial palace, practicing Chinese calligraphy and posing for lots of photographs.

“First lady diplomacy, which seems an expression of soft power, adds a new flavor to the relationship between China and the United States,” said Vincent Ni, a London-based Chinese journalist who followed the trip. “This could become an important channel for developing the future relationship between China and the United States.”

For a nation that has had no place for a president’s wife on a public stage, Peng’s hosting of Obama could set a new precedent.

Obama said more than once during her travels that China was “wonderful,” and her staff posted photos of her doing tai chi, hugging her daughters on the Great Wall and feeding apples to pandas. Her motorcade snarled traffic, of course, but it also drew mass crowds to city streets at midday to greet her.

The trip was by no means perfect. Obama encouraged students from disadvantaged backgrounds to study abroad, but on her first full day in Beijing she visited a Chinese high school where American students said their parents pay $50,000 a year for their tuition and boarding.

And while Obama called freedom of the press a universal right, she did only one news interview during her trip — a written Q&A.

Obama and Peng rarely looked warm or comfortable together publicly: They used interpreters to communicate and were surrounded by large entourages of security and aides. But officials traveling with Obama said there was a connection made.

After Obama met President Xi Jinping, who welcomed her and spoke of friendship with President Obama, the two first ladies had a private dinner.

Xi shared the U.S. first lady’s greetings with President Obama when the two men met at The Hague earlier this week.

It remains to be seen whether Michelle Obama’s trip will pave the way for the two men to make progress on policy, but it certainly did no harm.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.
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