Michelle Obama will try to avoid politics during trip to China

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)

Michelle Obama’s upcoming trip to China will focus on cultural exchange and avoid contentious topics, including China’s human rights violations, White House officials said Monday.

The first lady will head out Wednesday, accompanied by her daughters, Malia and Sasha, and her mother, Marian Robinson.

President Obama will not be on the trip. But he and Chinese President Xi Jinping will hold a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands next week.

The White House is leaving the politics to those leaders. The first lady, whose overseas travel has been marked by soft diplomacy and an interest in youth empowerment, will visit China March 19-26, with stops in Beijing and sightseeing at tourist attractions in Xi’an and Chengdu.

“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,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. “Her focus on people-to-people relations, her focus on education and youth empowerment, is one that we believe will resonate with China.”

During her visit, the first lady will meet with Peng Liyuan, the Chinese president’s wife, and will visit cultural and historical sites. Obama will focus on the “importance of cultural exchanges between our young people and the shared importance of education for our young people both in China and in the United States,” said Tina Tchen, the first lady’s chief of staff.

Obama’s first full day in Beijing will be hosted by Peng, who is often described as China’s first “first lady” because of her Western approach to the role. Both women have been involved with educational causes, and they will visit a school together. Peng will lead Obama on a tour of the Forbidden City, which was the seat of Chinese imperial power from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty, and the two will see a show and have a private dinner.

Elizabeth C. Economy, director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that she “would like to see [Obama] follow in the tradition of the previous first ladies and address some of the substantive issues. . . . There are significant American interests that she could advance were she to try.”

Instead, Obama — who has assiduously steered clear of controversy on her rare overseas trips — has a schedule that avoids the political news of the day, unlike her immediate predecessors. Laura Bush accused China of not doing enough to pressure the brutal Burmese regime. Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a blunt assessment of China’s human rights record during a visit to Beijing in 1995.

Those issues are being addressed through other channels, Rhodes said, adding that politics should not be the focus of Obama’s trip. “This is a very different purpose,” he said.

Obama has no press interviews on her schedule but will hold “virtual events” with PBS LearningMedia and Discovery Education that will allow students and teachers to follow along through blog posts, videos and photos.

Rhodes said he does not expect Obama to encounter protesters, and she is not scheduled to meet with any of China’s human rights activists.

During a conference call with reporters, Rhodes and Tchen declined to say how much the trip will cost. Administrations of both parties have long kept the costs of such foreign travel secret, in part because of security concerns.

This is the first trip to China for Obama, her mother and her daughters — who are on spring break — and is similar in design to a trip that the four of them took to South Africa and Botswana in 2011.

That same year, Sasha spoke Mandarin with Hu Jintao, then China’s president, during a state visit. She has studied Chinese culture at Sidwell Friends School, but she no longer takes those classes, Tchen said.

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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