Michelle Obama has embarked on a weeklong trip to China, together with her mother, Marian Robinson, and daughters, Malia and Sasha. Critics of the trip point out that the Robinson-Obama visits to Beijing (Great Wall), Xi’an (terra-cotta army), and Chengdu (pandas), will do nothing to illuminate or alleviate tensions in U.S.-China relations. Knowing that Mrs. Obama is also unlikely to raise human rights issues directly, they view the trip as an opportunity lost.
Chin up. This will be the most consequential appearance an American first lady has ever made in China and may prove to be the most important trip made by any Obama to the PRC.
U.S.-China relations have been turbulent since at least March of 2010, when North Korea sank a South Korean warship and president Obama accused Chinese leader Hu Jintao of “willful blindness.” Territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas have escalated since. On the eve of Mrs. Obama’s trip, Beijing and Washington see increasing sources of instability in the Western Pacific and beyond.
There is turbulence, but relations are not in a tailspin. Both sides hope Mrs. Obama’s trip will calm the atmosphere by highlighting what is positive in the relationship. Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping is probably more eager than President Obama for feel-good photos and headlines. He frequently describes the U.S. and China as seeking a "New Model of Major Power Relations." American leaders avoid the phrase, however, and some, like the new ambassador to China, Max Baucus, have publicly questioned its intentions and utility. Xi will want to use Mrs. Obama's trip to demonstrate to the Chinese that there is good will in Sino-U.S. relations and, by extension, that his America policy is respected and effective.
The trip will also be an opportunity for China's charismatic first lady, the singer Peng Liyuan, to demonstrate that Chinese diplomacy and society are changing. She will match Mrs. Obama outfit for outfit, smile for smile, and Chinese netizens will keep score. It will be a media circus.
Media circuses matter. China’s propaganda organs may want the visit to be a beauty contest and travelogue, but the Robinson-Obamas will bear explicit and implicit messages that ordinary Chinese will receive no matter what their media report. The fact that three generations are traveling together will be striking. The Chinese pride themselves on the “three generations under one roof” ethic of family intimacy and filial piety. They have long criticized Americans for selfish individualism and dismissive attitudes toward the elderly. The interactions of an American mother, daughter, and granddaughters will be a gracious rebuttal.
The Robinson-Obama’s emphasis on education and discipline will demonstrate that China has no monopoly on those virtues. The accomplishments and influence of Mrs. Obama, and the emerging talents of her daughters, will make them role models in a country where women’s political influence is sparse and slipping, even as their educational attainments expand. China has long trumpeted Mao Zedong’s declaration that “women hold up half the sky” as proof of its gender equality. In fact, China remains a pre-feminist society. Unequal pay for equal work, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and limited marital and professional prospects for educated women are widely accepted, but not widely discussed, in today’s China.
Finally, the Robinson-Obamas will evince American cultural and racial diversity at a time when China refuses to acknowledge its own ethnic tensions and prejudices.
Mrs. Obama’s trip could be the greatest public diplomacy triumph the United States has achieved in China in years. But the visit will advance China’s soft power goals as well. Mrs. Obama's China trip will remind Americans of the growing role China plays in human affairs. Her public statements will impress on Americans our vital need for better Chinese-language and cultural studies in American primary and secondary schools. She has already laid the foundation for that message by appearing at Washington’s Yuying charter school and through her support for the 100 Thousand Strong Foundation. She may achieve more for Chinese public diplomacy in the coming week than all of China’s U.S. Confucius Institutes and media outlets have produced over the past several years.
Using her trip to criticize China’s human-rights record would greatly diminish Mrs. Obama’s ability to achieve these goals. China’s human-rights record has worsened over the past year, but making that point at every possible opportunity serves neither American interests nor those of the many brave activists and independent thinkers in China. It’s difficult to impress and insult one’s hosts simultaneously. This visit is about impressions, and rightly so.
Good will cannot create a new security architecture in the Western Pacific. It will not convince China to respect America’s intellectual property. Mrs. Obama’s trip will focus on what is positive in the U.S. and in the bilateral relationship. It will be up to national leaders to decide whether the good will she and her Chinese hosts generate is used to paper over problems in the relationship or to build momentum toward managing them more effectively.
Robert Daly is director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center.