Michelle Obama’s diplomatic style strikes right chord with Beijing

Michelle Obama and her mother, Marian Robinson, visited the Giant Panda Research Base in China, where they fed the animals apples.  The tour ended Wednesday.
Petar Kujundzic/Associated Press/Pool
Michelle Obama and her mother, Marian Robinson, visited the Giant Panda Research Base in China, where they fed the animals apples. The tour ended Wednesday.

BEIJING — Michelle Obama’s team billed her visit to China, with her daughters and mother tagging along, as a goodwill tour unconnected to the political tensions that complicate the relationship between the global superpowers.

It turned out to be a somewhat more substantive swing through this massive country than expected, displaying Obama’s deft ability to mix diplomacy with her personal narrative. Before flying home late Wednesday afternoon, she had raised the issues of minority rights, Internet access, and religious freedom, all while charming the Chinese public by skipping rope, practicing tai chi with high school students, and declaring herself awed by the nation’s ancient tourist sites.

Her final stop was at a restaurant in a province near China’s border with Tibet in a silent expression of her support for that community. ‘‘I would argue that her approach was more effective than lecturing,’’ a senior White House official said. ‘‘There wasn’t any one thing to censor.’’


Obama’s visit flooded China’s airwaves and newspapers. The US Embassy here tracked the views of videos, photos, and stories of the first lady and said they had reached 1 billion.

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Michelle Obama’s visit came 19 years after Hillary Clinton gave a historic speech at the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, where she equated women’s rights to human rights and condemned the practice of forced abortions. Obama did not see herself competing with Clinton’s rebuke.

Clinton’s remarks became a feminist credo, but they were not aired in China. Obama’s speech at Peking University’s Stanford Center was posted in full on Weibo, a Twitter-like service. China’s Ministry of Information chose not to censor it.

She called for open access to information — a major issue in China, where news is censored and websites are routinely blocked. But Obama did so in such a way that her remarks, which were mostly about encouraging students to study abroad, came coated in careful language and personal asides.

Obama spoke of the open exchange of ideas as ‘‘messy’’ and did not directly call out China. ‘‘My husband and I are on the receiving end of plenty of questioning and criticism from our media and our fellow citizens,’’ she said. ‘‘And it’s not always easy, but we wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.’’


John Thornton, a former president of Goldman Sachs who leads Global Leadership at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said that he has not always given the Obama administration positive reviews but found the first lady’s speech ‘‘pitch perfect’’ for China, where sincerity paves the way for connections.

For Chinese officials, Obama’s tour broke ground in first lady diplomacy. For the first time, a leader’s wife invited a US first lady for a visit. Peng Liyuan, who has styled herself after Western first ladies by representing China abroad, spent a full day with Obama.