First Lady Michelle Obama glimpsed China’s future and paid homage to its past on the first day of a week-long goodwill visit to the world’s second-largest economy.
Her jet-lagged teenage daughters in tow, the first lady toured a Beijing high school that hosts American exchange students before making a quick tour of the Forbidden City, home to Chinese emperors for almost 500 years.
At Beijing Normal School, Obama, 50, tried her hand at calligraphy, watched a robotics demonstration and swatted a ping-pong ball. Later, she was scheduled to have a private dinner with Peng Liyuan, wife of President Xi Jinping, and attend an evening of traditional Chinese entertainment.
“It’s very rare that I have the opportunity to travel outside of the United States, and it’s even more rare to have the opportunity to travel with three generations,” the first lady said during the school’s welcoming ceremony. “And it is no accident that one of our first trips as a family is here to China.”
Today’s rare meeting of the Chinese and American first ladies evoked Mao Zedong’s oft-quoted aphorism: “women hold up half the sky.” Chinese commentators including in the New Beijing News, a local daily, hailed the first ladies’ “soft diplomacy” as a complement to traditional Sino-U.S. dialogues.
Both presidential spouses are women who have broken their country’s traditional molds. Obama, a descendant of slaves, is an attorney, hospital executive and the nation’s first African-American first lady. The stylish Peng, 51, a popular singer of folk music featured in state television’s annual new year’s celebration, is far better known than previous Chinese leaders’ spouses.
“She is very beautiful and very elegant,” said Fu Yao, 24, a graduate student at the China Academy of Art, who spoke before Obama arrived in China. “She adds some glamor to President Xi Jinping.”
U.S. officials say the visit is designed to improve the atmosphere surrounding a relationship that includes more than half a trillion dollars in two-way trade along with myriad tensions over commercial and foreign policy disputes, though they acknowledge substantive talks await a March 24 meeting between Presidents Barack Obama and Xi on the sidelines of a nuclear summit in the Hague.
Friday evening, Xi and Peng greeted Obama at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse with the Chinese president saying through a translator: “I cherish my sound working relationship and personal friendship I already established with your husband.”
Still, genuine warmth between the two first ladies could act “like a lubricant on the machine” of state, said Hao Lin, 60, a retired engineer interviewed at Peking University campus, where Obama visits tomorrow. “We hope the relationship will go in a friendlier direction,” she said.
For Obama, who arrived Thursday, the visit is a chance to make up for her absence at the June 2013 Sunnylands summit in Palm Springs, Calif., which was attended by President Obama, President Xi and his wife.
The first lady is traveling with her mother, Marian Robinson, and her daughters, Malia, 15, and Sasha, 12. The group is scheduled to visit the Great Wall and see the famed pandas in Chengdu before returning to the U.S. on March 26.
The first lady’s goodwill gestures, however, aren’t the only message reaching Chinese ears. Amid U.S. concerns over China’s handling of territorial disputes with countries such as Japan and the Philippines, Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, this week criticized China’s “lack of transparency” and said its “revanchist tendencies” were destabilizing the region, the Financial Times reported March 20.
“The U.S. doesn’t want China to be strong and China knows it,” said Fan Yuxin, 17, a Peking University freshman.
An adviser traveling with the first lady dismissed concerns about mixed messages. The Chinese were able to distinguish between senior leaders’ views and those of lesser officials, he said, asking not to be named.
The first lady intends to emphasize education on this trip, including speaking Saturday at Peking University’s Stanford Center. The students she saw today hailed from some of the most exclusive and expensive American prep schools, including Exeter, Andover and Washington’s Sidwell Friends.
Malia greeted one of the American exchange students, Sidwell’s Audrey Fritz, 17, with a hug.
“I’ll make you look good,” the first lady joked to a Chinese student as she wrote the Mandarin character “yong,” meaning “forever.”
Peng wrote a Chinese phrase meaning “Only people of great virtue are suited to undertake great things” and gave the parchment to her visitor as a gift.
Those studying at Beijing Normal, which offers an international curriculum to prepare students to continue their education overseas, are among China’s best. Yue Tongyu, 16, who plans to be a translator or journalist, said it was “an honor” to host the first lady.
The first lady’s motorcade sped through streets closed to regular traffic, passing knots of curious Chinese. Many held out smartphones to film the scene.
At the Forbidden City, the official party toured the Hall of Supreme Harmony and encountered a century-old cypress tree.
“Did the girls see that?” the first lady asked turning to look for her daughters.
As Obama returned to her hotel, she drove past Tiananmen Square, site of the 1989 democracy protests that were crushed by China’s military, and witnessed evidence of the country’s economic advance in the quarter century since that tumultuous episode.
China’s economy in real terms is 24 times larger than in 1978, when General Secretary Deng Xiaoping began instituting market-oriented reforms. The opposite lanes of Beijing’s main east-west thoroughfare, Changan jie, were jammed with Buicks, Audis and Hyundai sedans while Tiffany, Cerrutti and Burberry outlets dotted the Oriental Plaza retail mall.