First lady Michelle Obama, accompanied by daughters Malia and Sasha and mother Marian Robinson, is off to China Wednesday with plans to make friends, see the sights, promote education, and charm anyone willing to listen.
On this, her third solo foreign trip abroad, sticky, tricky issues such as human rights and international trade abuses are decidedly not on her agenda, at least not in an obvious way. She is not expected to be making dramatic pronouncements about, say, women’s rights, as former FLOTUS (and possible future POTUS candidate) Hillary Clinton once did on a trip to China.
That’s not Obama’s FLOTUS style. She has turned out to be a skillful blend of first-lady convention and innovation, seamlessly switching from workouts with kids on the White House lawn, to glittery state dinners in couture fashion to “mom-dancing” with Jimmy Fallon on his late-night gab show. But she rarely says or does anything truly controversial or explicitly political, and she isn’t planning to start in China.
“I’ll be focusing on the power and importance of education, both in my own life and in the lives of young people in both of our countries,” she said in her first post on her travel blog of the trip.
Obama will be promoting more subtle “people-to-people relations” on her three-city tour (Beijing, Xi’an and Chengdu), says Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for communications.
“Her agenda sends a message that the relationship between the United States and China is not just between leaders, it’s a relationship between peoples,” Rhodes said, according to a White House transcript of a conference call with reporters, Rhodes and the first lady’s chief of staff, Tina Tchen, on Monday. “Her focus on education and youth empowerment is one that we believe will resonate in China.”
But the fact Rhodes was enlisted to brief reporters about the trip suggests it’s not just a spring-break vacation for the Obama girls. The first lady’s “personal story” of a modest upbringing to top-ranked achievement (she has degrees from Princeton and Harvard Law) will also resonate with young people in China and at home, Rhodes said.
“What the first lady really brings is the power of her own story, and the power of American values, which is completely interwoven with our commitment to human rights,” Rhodes said.
The trip also will allow the first lady to smooth over whatever hurt feelings might have been exposed last year, when the stylish-and-savvy Chinese first lady, Peng Liyuan, accompanied her husband, President Xi Jinping, when he met with President Obama in California in June. The Chinese were eager to see the two first ladies side by side but the first lady opted to stay home to be with her daughters who were finishing up the school year.
But Peng Liyuan will be close by Obama when she arrives in Beijing on Thursday; the two are scheduled to visit a prep school for Chinese students attending universities abroad, tour the Forbidden City, attend a dinner and also a performance.
The first lady’s itinerary will include must-see cultural attractions for any visitor fascinated by China’s ancient civilization. Besides the Forbidden City, the sprawling imperial palace of the Chinese emperors for 500 years, she will tour the equally impressive Summer Palace, visit the Great Wall of China, get up close to China’s ever-endearing pandas, and explore the archaeological wonders of the Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, which houses the 8,000-strong terracotta army of sculptures buried more than 2,200 years ago with China’s first unifying emperor, in Xi’an.
Although the White House did not specify that Robinson and granddaughters Malia, 15, and Sasha, 12, will be there, too, it’s hard to imagine the first lady would take her teens all the way to China and not show them the sights.