Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Saturday, June 23, 2018

By Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy Foreign Staff

BEIJING — Landing on an unusually blue-sky Beijing afternoon, Michelle Obama launched a six-day trip to China 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 and his wife, Melodee Hanes. Also on hand were three busloads of mostly Chinese media, some of whom were there to scrutinize the Obamas’ fashion choices, having done so during the past week.

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.

Ma noted that a meeting between Michelle Obama and Peng has been talked about for some time, partly because Obama was unable to join her husband at the Sunnylands Summit last June, which Xi and Peng attended.

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, the feminine influence on the first African American to be elected president. The optics can’t help but advance the U.S. image in China, even if the Obama doesn’t make speeches about the virtues of democracy.