WASHINGTON — First Lady Michelle Obama will apparently take a softer diplomatic approach than some of her predecessors on her eight-day trip to China, veering away from directly addressing politically sensitive topics and focusing instead on “people-to-people” exchanges and education, a briefing by White House officials revealed.
Obama, who will travel to China from Wednesday to March 26 and meet with the first lady of China, Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping, will also visit schools and historical and cultural sites. Obama will visit Beijing from Thursday to Sunday, Xi’an on Monday and Chengdu from March 25 to 26.
The First Lady will make the trip to China without President Obama, but she will be accompanied by her daughters, Sasha and Malia, and her mother, Marian Robinson.
White House officials released a detailed itinerary of Obama’s trip on Monday and explained the purpose of her visit.
“It is critically important given the roles that our two countries play in the 21st century — that we maintain the very regular contact we have at the leader-to-leader level but that we are also reaching out and building relationships with people, particularly young people,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy National Security adviser for strategic communications, on a call with reporters. “So her focus will be on people-to-people relations. Her focus will be on education and youth empowerment is one that we believe will resonate in China.”
While Obama will focus on education and youth empowerment, former First Ladies Hillary Rodham Clinton and Laura Bush took on the markedly more contentious and sensitive issue of human rights in China during their respective visits to China.
Clinton even criticized China’s record on human rights in a speech at a United Nations conference in Beijing in 1995.
Rhodes said the First Lady’s personal story should resonate with the Chinese.
“The First Lady’s story itself sends a powerful message about the ability of someone from a disadvantaged economic background, from a minority group to ascend from that position that she did in private life to now [being] first lady,” he said. “That alone speaks to things like a respect of human rights that are interwoven into the DNA of the United States of America.”
Tina Tchen, the First Lady’s chief of staff and a first generation Chinese-American who will travel with the First Family, said having three generations of women in the Obama family travel together will send an important and meaningful message to the Chinese.
Tchen said Obama will meet with Peng on Thursday, her first day in China. The two first ladies will visit the Beijing Normal School together as well as the Forbidden City. After a formal meeting, Peng will host a dinner and a performance for Obama, her daughters and mother.
Obama will also make two speeches on her trip, one at the Stanford Center at Peking University on Saturday and a second at speech at the No. 7 high school in Chengdu on March 25.
Responding to a question about whether the White House or First Family planned to reimburse the U.S. government for the costs of her children and mother on the trip, Tchen said: “We are not discussing or disclosing information regarding the details or the logistics of the trip.”
Rhodes also declined to disclose how much the trip is estimated to cost taxpayers.