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Michelle Obama tries mom-diplomacy in China

First Lady Michelle Obama
First Lady Michelle Obama
(Photo: Jacquelyn Martin AP)

Whoever first said that behind every great man is a great woman didn’t factor in Michelle Obama. The First Lady will be traveling to China today to promote “people-to-people” relations between the two countries, stepping squarely in front of her husband Barack Obama’s generally hesitant and hands-off approach to foreign policy. Traveling with her mother and two daughters in a clear nod to China’s traditional ancestral values, Michelle will focus on commonalities and try to build a personal relationship with China’s First Lady, Peng Liyuan, in a way that the Obama administration has so far underutilized.

"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," Obama wrote in her travel blog. “No matter what country we live in, we’re all facing so many of the same challenges – from ensuring that students get a good education; to fighting poverty, hunger and disease; to addressing threats to our planet like climate change.”

Obama will be the 15th U.S. First Lady to visit China, while Peng is considered to be the first Chinese First Lady ever. In a political system where public campaigning to win the hearts and minds of voters isn’t necessary, the wives of Chinese leaders have typically avoided the limelight and left public displays to their husbands. But Peng enjoyed fame as a folk-singer long before her husband Xi Jinping’s rise to power, appearing on dozens of magazine covers over three decades. When Xi gained prominence in the CCP, Peng switched from singing to promotion of HIV/AIDS prevention and anti-smoking campaigns.

According to Krissah Thompson of the Washington Post, “American and Chinese leaders have not had especially close personal relationships, and there is hope among foreign relations experts that Obama and Peng will form a bond.” The women do have a lot in common – both are widely admired for their fashion sense, are mothers of girls and are known in their home countries for taking stances on health issues. The two leading ladies were also included in Forbes’ most recent listing of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women, Obama at fourth place and Peng at fifty-fourth. Peng’s affinity for the traditional western role of First Lady – women who act as “bellwethers of larger historic changes happening in the country” – could form an excellent foundation for discussion and mutual respect during Obama’s visit this week.

More a cultural exchange than a platform for policy decisions, the trip will be a chance for Obama to stress quality education and the value of hard work. She is expected to draw on her own rise from humble beginnings to attending Princeton University and Harvard Law School. She will reportedly not be traveling with journalists, instead opting to tell her own story through blog posts. Whether Obama will be able to stick to this personal narrative remains to be seen – former first ladies who visited China, including Hilary Clinton, have not been able to resist bringing up China’s human rights abuses while there. “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,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications.

In order to foster a strong relationship with Peng, Obama will have to overcome – or ignore – both human rights and the systemic differences between the American and Chinese education systems. The freedom of movement, the right to private education and the accuracy of state-controlled information are all topics affecting the quality of learning in China. But with the current atmosphere of mistrust and misunderstanding that pervades US-China Policy, Obama and Peng don’t have much to lose.

“Ties have cooled over tensions arising from rivalry, cyber issues, military operations, alliances and territorial disputes,” lamented a South China Morning Post editorial published yesterday. “The presidents (of China and America) have to be on better terms if there is to be a chance of building a new type of major power relationship. There is hope of that this month when first ladies Peng Liyuan and Michelle Obama meet in Beijing.”

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