China and the World, Talking Point

The good wives

A fillip for Sino-US relations after ‘first ladies’ get together


Schooled in diplomacy: Michelle Obama meets with Chinese students

“Her unfailingly warm, gracious conduct is accomplishing something that official discussions, important as they are, cannot do. She is establishing direct and friendly contact with the Chinese people on a normal human level; the level where children and families and food and service and health are the most important things.”

Compliments for Michelle Obama during her weeklong trip to Beijing, Xi’an and Chengdu, you might think? The praise – from the Chicago Tribune – actually dates back to February 1972, and relates to Pat Nixon, who joined her husband on his groundbreaking trip to Beijing.

With Nixon stuck in meetings with Zhou Enlai and other Chinese cadres, his wife went out to schools, factories, shops and communes. Followed around by a large press contingent from the United States, she became one of the most visible symbols of the trip. Even her crimson coat was a talking point, standing out vividly against the drab surroundings.

Michelle Obama couldn’t hope to match the impact of the Nixon tour with her own visit to China last week. She turned up without her husband and didn’t bring members of the press to travel with her. But it was heralded as a goodwill visit, and was greeted by the Chinese press as a stroke of “gentle diplomacy”.

This was more of a family holiday?

Michelle Obama came to China with her mother and her two daughters (“three generations under the same roof, just like a Chinese family, that’s great!” was one comment on weibo). But the trip did have official status, referred to by the White House as a “people-to-people exchange”.

That didn’t stop President Obama’s critics in the US from targeting the tour as an unnecessary junket. One gripe was that the media should have been more involved because it was largely taxpayer-funded. Other criticisms ranged from the cost of her hotel in Beijing (turned down as too pricey for Vice-President Joe Biden during a visit last year) through to her choice of footwear (heels) when she tried tai chi in Chengdu.

The First Family’s itinerary took in many of the main tourist sites, including the Great Wall and the Forbidden City in Beijing, the terracotta warriors in Xi’an, plus a panda reserve in Chengdu.

But in advance of her visit, the White House had signalled that FLOTUS (the First Lady of the United States) would be staying away from any discussion of political issues. Xinhua thought that was a good idea – “The uniqueness of the role of first ladies is their soft touch and freedom from the knottiness, and even ugliness, of hard politics”. But though she didn’t touch on any geopolitical issues, she didn’t entirely steer clear of sensitive areas. For example, Mrs Obama spoke out in support of freedom of speech at Peking University last Saturday, calling it one of the “universal rights that are the birthright of every person on this planet”.

“My husband and I are on the receiving end of plenty of questioning and criticism from our media and our fellow citizens,” she told her audience. “It’s not always easy, but we wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. Because time and again, we have seen that countries are stronger and more prosperous when the voices and opinions of their citizens can be heard.”

The response in China to her remarks was limited. The newspapers omitted any mention of her comments, while students at the meeting chose not to respond either, according to the American press. “It’s not convenient for me to talk about such issues,” one attendee cautiously advised.

The references to free speech did get some mentions on social media although there were waspish responses too, some referencing Edward Snowden’s revelations about snooping from the NSA.

“Yes, China should learn from the US to listen better to its citizens’ voices,” carped one respondent. “Maybe China should get a surveillance programme like Prism.”

Wasn’t education the focus of the trip?

The main purpose of the First Lady’s visit was to promote educational exchanges and she visited schools in Beijing and Chengdu to make this point. One school in Beijing already hosts 30 American students, the New York Times has reported, mostly from elite institutions like the one attended by Malia and Sasha Obama. But the Obama administration is trying to increase the number of Americans studying in China from 20,000 currently. The US welcomes about 200,000 Chinese students, more than from any other country.

But again, parts of the US media were critical, claiming that education was chosen as the main topic because it wouldn’t upset the Chinese. This was contrasted with Hilary Clinton’s demand for greater respect for human rights at a conference in Beijing in 1995 and Laura Bush’s call for the Chinese government to do more to pressure the Burmese junta during a visit to Thailand that was part of a longer trip to the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Obama’s supporters counter that she has chosen to be non-political during her time at the White House and that her focus on education and young people fitted well with the causes she supports at home.

The choice also made sense for Obama’s hosts, said Chen Weihua in the China Daily. “Not each and every one of the 1.3 billion Chinese citizens wakes up every morning agonising over their nation’s human rights situation,” he wrote in the American edition of the newspaper. “On the contrary, education is probably the top priority for every Chinese family.”

But “soft diplomacy” was still at work?

With her approachable and engaging style, and even in the decision to bring her mother and daughters with her, Obama’s supporters say her trip was designed to create good will between the two countries. Most of the photo opps showed her trying to sample Chinese culture or engage with local people. Her unspoken mission was to remind the Chinese of the more respectful and compassionate face of America.“It’s critically important, given the roles that our two countries are going to play in the 21st century, that we maintain the very regular contacts that we have at the leader-to-leader level, but that we’re also reaching out and building relationships with people, particularly young people,” the White House’s Ben Rhodes briefed media ahead of the president’s wife arrival in China.

There were moments linking back to the Nixon tour too. These included a game of table tennis at a Beijing school, a reminder of the 1971 tour by an American team that helped to lay the groundwork for the presidential visit (and coined the term ‘ping-pong diplomacy’).

“My husband plays,” Michelle explained to the watching crowd. “He thinks he’s better than he really is.”

There was a reprise for outfits in red as well, when the First Lady wore a scarlet dress for the photo call in front of the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse on her second day in Beijing.

“She knows what red means in China. It’s definitely a good choice,” the Wuhan Evening News noted approvingly.

And it meant more headlines for Peng Liyuan, as well?

The wife of the Chinese president greeted the American visitors on their arrival and accompanied them on some of their itinerary in Beijing, helping Michelle with her brushstrokes in a calligraphy lesson, for example.

In what some dubbed a ‘First Lady Summit’, the hostess was very much in the spotlight too – a far cry from the usual situation in China.

A major general in the army’s musical troupe, Peng was a famous folk singer when she met Xi in 1986 and had a considerably higher profile than her husband until relatively recently. (“What I knew of Xi Jinping before he became China’s president was only that he was Mrs Peng’s husband,” a woman from Beijing told Bloomberg Businessweek last year.)

Peng began to step back from public view as her husband’s career took him closer to the centre of power. Yet as Bloomberg has also reported, she was still the better-known half of the relationship as late as 1999, when she appeared on the intriguingly named Phoenix TV talk show Chat-Chat Threesome.

“What kind of husband can possibly tame such a glamorous and famous woman?” the host enquired. “My husband may not be famous in the same field,” Peng replied, “but I believe he is capable of outstanding achievements in other fields.”

Public interest in Peng then reignited after Xi became president and she began to accompany him on trips overseas. Her choice of coat and handbag on her first official visit to Moscow sent netizens swooning after she shunned foreign brands for domestic labels (see WiC187) and she has been watched more closely by the media ever since.

So China has a First Lady too?

Analysts in Chinese newspapers have been classifying Obama’s trip as an instance of soft diplomacy. Building a little more rapport between the wives of the world’s two most powerful men can be no bad thing. Likewise, there was a gentler side to the coverage, with much of the analysis focusing on how each woman has become a fashion icon. “The first ladies of China and the US … have much in common,” gushed the China Daily. “They are symbols of glamour in their own countries and stand uneclipsed by their more powerful husbands… Each woman has created a ‘power centre’ – a kind of soft power – from a combination of femininity and self-assertion.”

It’s true that Peng has cultivated more of a public persona than the wives of former presidents, who were rarely seen or heard. She has also been more active in espousing public causes, serving as a spokeswoman for campaigns against tuberculosis, AIDS and tobacco.

But writing in Forbes magazine, Huang Yanzhong says that Peng’s position shouldn’t be overstated. She has a circumscribed role politically, he says, and even informally he thinks her influence is limited. Peng might be an anti-smoking ambassador, Huang points out, but she’s failed to convince her husband to say a single word against tobacco.

It’s also a new departure for the Chinese to learn about the family lives of their leaders. Politicians haven’t needed to establish more of a personal connection with the general public (they’re not seeking votes). But Xi does seem to be making more of an effort with his image than his predecessors – smiling more and making a few unexpected excursions into everyday life, like his surprise lunch of steamed buns in Beijing (see WiC221).

Painting Xi as more of a family man also helps with the suggestion that he’s more in touch with the concerns of the population at large. Fleeting insights into his relationship with Peng have been part of this humanising process, including pointers for the media on how the couple met. She is said to have been unimpressed at first, thinking him a xiang ba lao or country bumpkin. But Xi was undaunted, winning her over with questions about singing styles. If Xinhua’s account is accurate, he should score top points for boldness too, telling her: “After only 40 minutes together, I feel you are my wife.”

But there are limits to how Peng is promoted…

Peng’s return as a public figure has been a cautious one. Online discussion about her fashion choices have been cut by censors, while e-commerce sites like Taobao have been told to drop adverts for clothes like those she has been pictured wearing.

The difficulty is that the first lady role in China itself has little precedent. As Lucy Hornby explained in the Financial Times last weekend, dominant female personalities even carry a hint of foreboding in a culture where powerful lady rulers have been considered as a sign of decadence or a failing dynasty. Political wives who make too many headlines also risk comparison with Jiang Qing, Mao’s much disliked wife and one of the cheerleaders for the Cultural Revolution. “The last high profile politician’s wife we had was Madame Mao,” a government official told British newspaper the Telegraph, this week. “And that did not turn out so well.”

Another danger in giving more focus to the home lives of politicians is the widespread belief that family members of the elite have made fortunes trading on their political connections. Some of this awkwardness extends to issues like education too, where many of China’s leaders have expressed opposition to Western values, but seem happy enough to send their children overseas for schooling or university.

Most of the more senior Politburo members have children or grandchildren who have studied in the US and a survey last year from Hurun, a Chinese publisher on luxury lifestyles, suggested that 80% of Chinese tycoons send their children overseas to study as well.

So while the Obama girls were photographed at every turn in China this week, there was no sign of the Xi’s 21 year-old daughter, who is thought to be attending Harvard University. Xi Mingze is hardly mentioned in the Chinese press, so it was a bold gambit this month when the Beijing Times speculated that she might greet the Obama clan during their visit to the Chinese capital.

Ultimately, Xi junior failed to make an appearance, despite interest in the social media. “Two American princesses are running around,” queried one weibo contributor. “Why won’t our own princess come out?”

“If there’s a first lady, why no first daughter?” Zhang Xin, the head of property giant SOHO China, asked on her own weibo account.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.