First lady Michelle Obama, her mother Marian Robinson and the first daughters, Malia and Sasha, are on a week-long tour of China.
Escorted by Peng Liyuan, the wife of President Xi Jinping, they visited the Forbidden City, and Friday stopped by a prestigious Beijing high school where first lady Obama rekindled the magic of ping-pong diplomacy by volleying with a student and instructor.
“My husband plays. He thinks he’s better than he really is,” Mrs. Obama told a crowd of onlookers.
This recreational exchange of table tennis gained political significance more than 40 years ago when the People’s Republic of China, PRC, invited members of the U.S. table tennis team to China as a show of diplomacy, which had long hinged on sports in the PRC. This paved the way for Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing, marking the first time a U.S. president had visited the PRC—normalizing relations between the two sides.
Mrs. Obama, who was in grade school when the U.S. visited China for the exhibition match, is continuing the agenda of expanding relations between the United States and China.
Although White House advisors are saying the visit is personal and not political, many say the first lady is intentionally in place to soften America’s image in the eyes of China’s public, especially in light of strongly opposing views in human rights, the value of China’s currency, and other disagreements that have caused the U.S. to appear as bullies whose goal is to stall China’s progression as a world power.
President Jinping, during a private dinner, reportedly thanked the U.S. for sending a “heavy-weight ambassador.”
First lady Liyuan, who has been hosting Mrs. Obama, is a renowned folk singer and performing artist. She shares commonalities with first lady Obama, as neither are “cookie cutter” representations of a political leader’s spouse and both are well adored by the countries their husbands serve and well praised for their fashion sense.
Experts on bilateral relations say the exchanges between the first ladies could be more effective at strengthening ties between the U.S. and China than a meeting of their spouses would be.