Michelle Obama rolls out soft diplomacy in China

BEIJING — Michelle Obama was greeted here first by clear air and a blue sky, a rarity and coincidence that locals celebrated. And second by President Xi Jinping and his wife, and Obama’s counterpart, Peng Liyuan, who hosted Obama for the day.

Xi met Obama Friday evening before the two first ladies had dinner and watched a traditional Chinese cultural performance at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, which is used by Chinese officials to host visiting heads of state.

"I cherish my sound working relationship and personal friendship I already established with your husband," Xi told Obama through a translator, and also noted that he and President Obama stay in close touch between phone conversations and correspondence.

It was Obama's first time meeting Xi, and the cap of a busy first day in China. She began her day with Peng, who has been called China's first real first lady, at Beijing Normal School, a high school that prepares its students for study abroad.

Peng selected the school, which has a relationship with Sidwell Friends — the private school that Sasha and Malia Obama attend. Students from the Washington, D.C. school participate in an exchange program with the Beijing high school, and Malia saw one of her classmates on the tour.

Michelle Obama is visiting China for the first time and meeting with that nation's first lady, Peng Liyuan. From fashion to education, the two women have a quite a bit in common. (Jason Aldag and Kate M. Tobey/The Washington Post)

At turns, the two first ladies appeared stiff together as they walked through the school, with Obama leaning over to a translator rather than chatting with Peng. But they had hours together to work out the awkwardness and later made small talk as Peng took Obama through the Forbidden City, an ancient emperor's palace in central Beijing.

"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," Peng said as she formally welcomed Obama.

After touring a robotics lab and a calligraphy classroom at the high school, Peng took Obama to a Ping-Pong practice area. Six pairs of students played at tables as Obama, her daughters and her mother watched, their eyes often darting back and forth, following the ball. Peng nodded as she followed the play.

Obama accepted immediately when invited to join in.

"Okay, we're going to get this. Let's go," she said, after taking a little instruction from a coach.

She volleyed back and forth with the instructor gamely trying out Ping-Pong diplomacy, for more than a minute. She then volleyed with a young woman and periodically said "Nice" when the opposing player made a return.

After about five minutes, Obama wrapped her game to applause from the Chinese students.

First lady Michelle Obama visited Beijing Normal School on Friday with her Chinese counterpart, Peng Liyuan. Obama tried calligraphy, ping pong and operating a robot. (Reuters)

At the close of her day, Obama thanked Xi for the welcome. "I tried my hand at Ping-Pong. Not so good," she said.

Xi smiled.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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