March 21, 2014 in Nation/World

Michelle Obama, mother, daughters, arrive in Bejiing

Stuart Leavenworth McClatchy-Tribune
Associated Press photo

First lady Michelle Obama and her daughter Sasha leave their plane at Capital International Airport in Beijing on Thursday.
(Full-size photo)

BEIJING – Landing on an unusually blue-sky Beijing afternoon, Michelle Obama launched a six-day trip to China on Thursday, aimed at smoothing Sino-U.S. relations with a carefully orchestrated exercise in soft diplomacy.

Obama, joined by her mother, Marian Robinson, and two daughters, Malia and Sasha, was greeted on the tarmac at Beijing Capital International Airport by Chinese officials and newly installed Ambassador to China Max Baucus.

The White House signaled many days ago that this will not be a political trip. No discussion of China’s tensions with Japan. No lectures on China’s human rights record. The goal is to elevate Michelle Obama’s international education agenda and see some of China’s great sights, while also developing a relationship with her counterpart, Peng Liyuan, spouse of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who shares Obama’s interests in education and public health.

Numerous commentators have criticized Obama for not using her international celebrity status to advance a more ambitious agenda. But some say that, in a time of tension, stronger personal connections between the first families could go a long way toward a more productive dialogue between the United States and China.

“It seems like a no-brainer that this kind of one-on-one could produce some positive diplomatic results,” Damien Ma, a fellow at the Paulson Institute in Chicago, said in an email exchange with McClatchy.

In the United States, Beijing’s use of “soft power” is getting increased scrutiny as China pumps money into U.S. universities, including the establishment of dozens of Confucius institutes. Such institutes feature arts and language programs aimed at projecting a benevolent image of Asia’s rising superpower.

The United States has its own instruments of “soft power,” and the Obama family is a big part of that toolbox. Over the next six days, China’s television audience – the largest in the world – will be inundated with images of an attractive multi-generational U.S. family.

Marian Robinson’s attendance will also surely resonate in China, where grandmothers play an essential role in child rearing and other family priorities.

During her first day in Beijing today, the first lady and her family will be hosted by Peng, a famous singer in China and a celebrity and behind-the-scenes political force in her own right. They will visit Beijing Normal School, which prepares Chinese students for study abroad, and also tour the Forbidden City and attend a ceremonial dinner and evening performance.

In the days to follow, the Obamas will visit part of the Great Wall near Beijing, the Terracotta Warriors in Xian and the Chengdu Panda Base, home to about 50 pandas under study. Mixed in will be education roundtables and school visits with students, which will be blogged and broadcast through a White House collaboration with PBS LearningMedia and Discovery Education.

Obama’s approach to overseas trips – she’s described it as “do no harm” – has been compared to that of Barbara Bush, who avoided overtly political statements.

In a briefing with reporters early this week, White House officials acknowledged the importance and sensitivity of relations with China on human rights and other issues. But they said such concerns were best expressed by President Barack Obama, rather than his spouse.

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