When President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet this weekend for a highly anticipated trust-building summit in California, Xi will have his wife with him. But first lady Michelle Obama will be staying back in Washington, citing her daughters' last week in school.
The two things to understand here are that (1) Michelle Obama is a big star in China; her presence at the summit was eagerly anticipated in the Chinese media and would have been a nice win for Xi; (2) China still views itself as vulnerable and weak compared to the United States, which informs both its respect for the United States and its deep-seated insecurity about how China is viewed in Washington. Those two factors help explain why China-watchers say that the first lady's absence could offend both Xi and the many Chinese citizens watching the summit, which is after all the exact opposite of what the White House wants to accomplish.
Cheng Li, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, told the New York Times that the Chinese delegation “will be disappointed. They certainly have very high expectations for this meeting.” He went on:
“There will be more coverage in China than in the United States” of the Obama-Xi visit, Mr. Li predicted, and since the Chinese are “extremely sensitive,” Mrs. Obama’s absence “certainly needs some explanation.”
A Chinese political scientist named Zhang Ming told the Independent, “First lady diplomacy is also very important and the U.S. side has failed to cooperate. ... According to normal diplomatic etiquette this is very strange. It shouldn’t be like this." He added that her absence would “not go down very well” in Beijing.
Tufts University Professor Dan Drezner agreed. "Michelle Obama not attending the summit is a diplomatic own-goal that could easily have been avoided," he wrote on his Foreign Policy blog. "This is one of the few moments during her husband's term of office where what she does matters a small amount to world politics. She should be in California."
It's possible that the first lady's natural desire to spend time with her children is part of but not the entire explanation for her absence. China's own first lady, a popular singer named Peng Liyuan, is a bit controversial. She holds a ceremonial, civilian rank in the People’s Liberation Army that's the equivalent of major general. A photo, heavily censored within China, appears to show her serenading army troops in Tiananmen Square immediately after the 1989 crackdown that killed hundreds or thousands of civilians. And a heavily circulated video shows her performing a 1960s-era propaganda song from the perspective of a Tibetan woman who is purportedly eager for the People's Liberation Army to come conquer her country. Perhaps the White House was not eager to have photos of Peng smiling next to Michelle Obama.
Whatever the reason, Xi is a grown-up and presumably will be willing to accept that he doesn't get to pose next to the U.S. first lady. But Beijing is at a pivotal moment in Chinese history, in which it has to decide if it wants to continue considering itself as a big but weak and insecure country trying to scrape by in a hostile world or start behaving like a real global leader. The United States would actually prefer the latter; as a "responsible stakeholder," China is going to do less hacking and sponsorship of rogue states but more maintenance of global stability.
This week's summit is partly about building personal trust between the two leaders, but it's also about enshrining the importance of the U.S.-China relationship. China wants to be taken seriously, and the United States wants China to take itself seriously. The fact that China's first lady will fly across the Pacific but America's couldn't bother to travel within her own country will not on its own overturn the U.S.-China relationship, of course. But it does undercut the summit's implicit diplomatic goals in a minor but pretty direct way.