‘First Lady Diplomacy’

A conversation: What should Michelle Obama seek to accomplish on her China trip?

Getty Images
Getty Images

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama, her two daughters, and her mother have touched down in Beijing for a week-long trip to China, during which she will meet with Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan. In this ChinaFile conversation, participants discuss the broader context of the U.S. first lady’s visit, what she should try to accomplish, and what constraints she will face.

Orville Schell, director of Asia Society’s Center on U.S. – China Relations: 

Looking at the challenges of rectifying U.S.-China relations and building some semblance of the "new kind of a big power relationship" alluded to by U.S. and Chinese presidents Obama and Xi at Sunnylands, a summit between the two in June 2013, will most certainly require a multi-stage ongoing effort. U.S. first lady Michelle Obama’s trip to China with her mother and her two daughters this week could prove to be a very constructive next step.

Because the U.S. first lady’s trip offers a symbolic expression of a genuine commitment on the part of the United States to do everything it can to achieve a breakthrough in relations with China, her visit could end up as a very sage prelude to the next official meeting between the U.S. and Chinese presidents scheduled for March 24 and 25 at the Hague. Indeed, confronting all the problems that divide our two countries — maritime and island disputes, cyber-warfare, human rights, the Ukraine, nuclear proliferation, to name a few — will pose an infinitely arduous challenge to Obama and Xi. But they are inescapably the responsibility of the two presidents, not the First Ladies. So, while these many difficult issues will remain unaddressed by Michelle Obama and Peng, what makes this visit to China a smart move by the White House is that it will enable the United States to demonstrate in the most obviously friendly way the importance it attaches to its future bilateral relationship with China. It will allow a highly symbolic interaction between the countries without the two needing to delve into the host of contentious issues that divide them. 

But we should be realistic. Michelle Obama’s trip is only a gesture, albeit an important one. For the two presidents to actually hit the proverbial "reset" button, they will have to evince some real leadership, innovative thinking, even risk taking. Such leadership has not yet been fully manifested. If they fail, the world will then also fail in resolving a range of critical and antagonistic global problems– including nuclear proliferation, climate change, cyber-hacking, pandemics, and other challenges that can only be met through real bilateral cooperation.

If the idea of establishing "a new kind of big power relations" is ever to be made more than an empty slogan, it will be necessary for both sides to become far bolder in their approaches to each other. Having dispatched his family to China on what could be described literally as a "panda-hugging" expedition, Obama might be firmer in his future meetings with Xi. 

Both sides yearn for the kind breakthrough in the interaction between the U.S. and China that has eluded the two since the U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, and then the Jimmy Carter-Deng Xiaoping breakthrough in 1979, when the United States granted China full diplomatic recognition. We yearn for a redux because moments like these were the occasions when our leaders actually reached for the stars and, finally, succeeded in recasting our bilateral relations. To again accomplish something of this import, both Obama and Xi are going to have to wade not only into the host of difficult issues which divide their nations, but also to find new ways to set aside some of the historical suspiciousness with which leaders of the two countries have approached each other lately. That is a far taller order, and not one that a Michelle Obama visit will accomplish. But then her trip does not aspire to something so grand. Her visit could serve as an important next step in the far longer process of establishing "a new form of big power relations," and a smart way to move the relationship forward by expressing the United States’ commitment to "working things out." But it will be no a substitute for the kind heavy lifting that will come next. 

Vincent Ni, correspondent, Caixin Media:

Michelle Obama’s visit to China will no doubt draw much attention. The two nations are developing a new type of "big power relationship," and the meeting of the two first ladies could len d extra dimension to this as-yet-undefined concept. Journalists may describe this as "first lady diplomacy" between China and the United States. If it emerges as an important theme then Michelle Obama and Peng will no doubt be remembered for this.

Chinese first ladies have been unassuming and inactive in the past; they lived in the shadow of their powerful husbands, and usually shied away from the media spotlight. In the United States, first ladies are the opposite: Hillary Clinton had her own office in the West Wing, and Michelle Obama has been an advocate for issues ranging from fighting childhood obesity to the rights of military families. In other words, they are a part of U.S. political life. Yet Peng, herself a celebrity even before Xi assumed the presidency, has proved to be an exception. 

I hope that aside from showing off their stylish dresses, the two first ladies will make some kind of announcement to boost mutual understanding and exchange. This is perhaps the most important thing today, amid the escalation of a zero-sum mentality between China and the United States.

Leta Hong Fincher, doctoral candidate, Tsinghua University: 

The White House says politics will not be on the itinerary of Michelle Obama’s tour of China. She will give no interviews and no reporters will be traveling with her. This is a shame, especially since the U.S. first lady’s visit comes just one week after a prominent, female rights activist, Cao Shunli, died in custody because Chinese authorities denied her lawyers’ requests to have her released on medical parole, according to rights groups. Cao had pressured Beijing to include the input of Chinese civil society in the Chinese government’s report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, but she was detained at Beijing’s international airport in September while attempting to leave for a training program in Geneva.

Contrast Michelle Obama’s avoidance of the media in China with Hillary Clinton’s powerful speech at the 1995 U.N.  World Conference on Women in Beijing, where she declared that "human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights." Next year marks the twentieth anniversary of the U.N.  Conference on Women, so Michelle Obama — travelling with her mother and two daughters — has a natural opportunity to highlight women’s rights during her trip.

In recent years, contrary to many claims made in the media, women in China have experienced a dramatic rollback of rights and gains relative to men. The gender wealth gap is widening sharply, female labor force participation in the cities is dropping, women’s property rights have been dealt a severe blow with the 2011 re-interpretation of China’s Marriage Law, and the proportion of women in the Party’s Central Committee has fallen to a dismal 4.9 percent.

Even if the U.S. first lady refuses to take questions from reporters, she should meet with members of women’s NGOs and feminist groups, which have lobbied the Chinese government for over a decade to pass targeted legislation against the epidemic of intimate partner violence in China. Government figures state that one-quarter of China’s women have experienced domestic violence, but feminist activists say the figure is vastly understated. Michelle Obama should also meet with American Kim Lee, a mother of three daughters who has gone public about violent abuse at the hands of her ex-husband, Li Yang, the multi-millionaire founder of "Crazy English" (a famous way of learning English through overcoming inhibitions). 

In spite of all the maneuvering to keep politics off Michelle Obama’s China itinerary, I agree with Schell and Ni that the U.S. First Lady’s trip could potentially be constructive. Michelle Obama is hugely popular in China, and she could demonstrate that "people-to-people exchanges" must include meaningful dialogue about how to improve the status of nearly one fifth of the world’s women.

Elizabeth Economy, Directort for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations: 

Schell and Ni have almost persuaded me that U.S.-China relations will best be served if Michelle Obama’s trip to China is little more than a public diplomacy tour de force. Indeed, she is already off to a good start. Chinese press commentary surrounding Michelle Obama’s visit has been glowing.

Yet I can’t help but feel that an opportunity is being sacrificed on the altar of wishful thinking. The opportunity is there to use the umbrella of education and culture — the focus of the U.S. first lady’s trip — to engage issues such as restrictions on American films, journalists, and educational institutions in China. These are important issues, and the first lady has a unique opening to raise them with Peng, herself a singing sensation and embodiment of Chinese culture. The wishful thinking is that this trip will in some way influence how Xi directs the Chinese navy to behave on the East and South China Seas or how he responds to Russia’s behavior in Crimea.

Beyond the missed opportunity, I am puzzled at the U.S. first lady’s apparent decision not to travel or have interviews with journalists during her trip. Certainly she is making herself extraordinarily accessible via social media, and granted, according to the U.S. State Department, public diplomacy means "government-sponsored programs intended to inform or influence public opinion in other countries" — not informing or influencing people at home. However, refusing to address the press directly sends the wrong message not only to people in the United States but also to Chinese citizens, and most critically, doesn’t reflect the U.S. first lady’s one policy-related promise: to share American values and traditions.

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