Michelle Obama’s China Tour Brings Warmth, Smog Relief

U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama
U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama plays table tennis as she visits a Beijing school, on March 21, 2014. Photographer: Andy Wong/Pool/Getty Images

Beijing’s usually clotted skies were relatively clear for a few days, a welcome improvement that some residents of the Chinese capital generously attributed to the presence of American First Lady Michelle Obama.

Today the polluted haze returned, a reminder -- as Obama completed her final full day in Beijing -- that the gains of her visit may prove equally fleeting in a relationship marked by conflict as much as cooperation.

“A goodwill visit certainly does not hurt,” Minxin Pei, director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College in California, said in an e-mail. “But the determinants of the nature and the tenor of Sino-U.S. relationship are structural, not personal.”

The short-term benefits of Obama’s decision to bring her two daughters and mother to China during spring break were evident. Zhuang Weiqi, 16, a student who met the first lady during her first official event, said the episode left him feeling the U.S. was friendlier to China than he had thought.

“She is a beautiful lady and very, very friendly to us,” Zhuang said. “She is very close to us and made us feel very good.”

The Chinese press rhapsodized about Obama’s decision to dine on duck at Da Dong, a restaurant noted for a low-fat preparation. Though there was some social media testiness about the $8,000-per-night hotel suite the Obama family occupied at the Westin Chaoyang Hotel, others praised the first lady’s fashion sense and personality.

Showing Trust

“Obama trusts China with his whole family,” wrote user “Sun and Moon,” on the QQ instant messaging service. “That shows China is peaceful, safe and trustworthy.”

The first lady participated today in an education roundtable at the U.S. Embassy with eight Chinese parents, educators and students. Apart from four minutes of opening remarks, the event was closed to the press. Participants’ names weren’t publicly announced to encourage a candid conversation, U.S. officials said.

Later, the first lady’s entourage toured the Great Wall at Mutianyu, adding to a cultural blitz that included stops earlier in the six-day trip at the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City.

Tomorrow, Obama heads to Xian for a look at the terracotta warriors before flying to Chengdu where she will visit another Chinese high school and see the Chengdu Panda Base.

Unhealthy Air

The Great Wall sightseeing outing was marred somewhat by smog that drove Beijing’s Air Quality Index for PM2.5, the small particles that pose the greatest risk to human health, to a “very unhealthy” 215 at 6 p.m., according to the U.S. Embassy website. That’s more than eight times the World Health Organization’s recommended day-long exposure limit of 25.

State-run Xinhua News Agency predicted March 22 that the first lady’s visits to cultural sites such as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City “will probably create another frenzy for Chinese food, Chinese traditional clothing and China tours.”

Education has been a central theme of Obama’s tour. Her Beijing stops included a speech at Peking University to a Stanford Center group of Chinese and American students about the benefits of studying abroad. She even edged near political controversy with remarks about the virtues of the free exchange of information in a society where the Communist Party zealously censors the Internet.

“She was really warm, really intelligent,” said Zhang Minghui, a student at Carnegie Mellon University originally from Tianjin.

Education Roundtable

Obama’s session was too short to delve deeply into China’s education system, said Wu Qing, an English professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, who was one of eight local participants in the roundtable. He said he was impressed with her knowledge of education.

“She thinks we need to change some of the things in education. We shouldn’t just study for exams. Then another thing is how we provide quality education for every single child, not just those coming from higher economic status families,” he said in a phone interview afterward with White House pool reporters.

Her visit comes at a time when the Sino-U.S. relationship is clouded by what the Brookings Institution in a 2012 report labeled “strategic distrust.”

China’s surging prosperity has fueled a more assertive maritime posture in its neighboring seas, leading to territorial disputes with U.S. allies Japan and the Philippines.

Yet the financial ties between the world’s two largest economies continue to grow. China is the largest holder of U.S. government debt, with $1.3 trillion in treasury securities, up from $740 billion five years ago.

Obama met briefly with Xi Jinping, China’s president and Communist Party general secretary, for about 30 minutes March 21. The Chinese leader is scheduled March 24 to sit down with her husband on the periphery of a nuclear summit in The Hague.

“The first lady really has tremendous assets in the diplomatic sense,” says Wang Dong, director of the school of international studies at Peking University, speaking before her arrival.

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