Panda Diplomacy: Michelle Obama Concludes Visit To China

The trip represented a sort of diplomatic change of pace from the usual issues of cyber espionage, trade spats and geopolitical competition that grab U.S.-China-related headlines.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Michele Obama is back in the U.S. after a weeklong trip to China. Her tour of three Chinese cities represented a sort of diplomatic change of pace from the usual tensions between the U.S. and China, like cyberespionage and trade spats.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports the first lady's visit included pingpong and pandas, both symbols of soft power diplomacy.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Before the first lady even set out for China, the White House made it clear that her trip would steer clear of hard politics. So whatever Michelle Obama discussed with China's president Xi Jinping, the details were not made public.

(SOUNDBITE OF PINGPONG BALLS BOUNCING)

KUHN: Reporters were allowed to accompany the first lady to an elite high school in Beijing, where she visited a robotics class, tried her hand at Chinese calligraphy and volleyed with a gym teacher, echoing the Ping-Pong Diplomacy that broke the ice between the U.S. and China in the early 1970s.

(APPLAUSE)

KUHN: The trip tried to focus on youth and education. Michelle Obama spoke at the Stanford Center at Beijing University. She told American students that by studying abroad, they are citizen diplomats, advancing U.S. foreign policy aims. She added that freedom of information and expression are essential to learning.

MICHELLE OBAMA: We respect the uniqueness of other cultures and societies. But when it comes to expressing yourself freely and worshipping as you choose and having open access to information, we believe those universal rights are the birthrights of every person on this planet.

KUHN: Those particular remarks appear to have been written for a Chinese audience, and some Chinese websites did report them.

Michelle Obama's host at several events in Beijing was Peng Liyuan, wife of President Xi Jinping. China has never officially recognized the position of first lady. Yuan Peng, a U.S. expert at a government think tank in Beijing, says this visit may prompt China to reconsider the matter.

YUAN PENG: (Through translator) Michele Obama coming over here without her husband is bound to prompt a discussion among our people about First Lady Diplomacy. It may motivate us to think about whether First Lady Diplomacy can work for us.

KUHN: China lost its appetite for first ladies, thanks in part to Chairman Mao's wife, Jiang Qing. She led the radical Gang of Four, which wielded much power in China during the 1966 to 1976 Cultural Revolution.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PENG LIYUAN: (Singing in foreign language)

KUHN: Peng Liyuan used to have a successful career as a singer in a military song and dance troupe. Since her husband took over China's leadership, she's accompanied him on trips overseas and served as a World Health Organization Goodwill Ambassador. In December, Peng made a video to commemorate the 100-day anniversary of Bao Bao, the youngest panda cub at the Washington Zoo.

LIYUAN: (Through translator) Today's 100-day celebration is another testament to the closeness Chinese and American people feel at heart, to the dreams we share, to the care and love for this planet we all call home.

KUHN: In a matching message, Michelle Obama notes that first ladies and Panda diplomacy are historically linked.

OBAMA: It was actually a first lady, Mrs. Pat Nixon, who helped jumpstart Panda Diplomacy and captured the imagination of people across America.

KUHN: Sinologists jokingly call someone who is soft on China a panda-hugger. Indeed, the soft, fuzzy touch used to win hearts and minds appears to be exactly what this trip is about. So it may come as little surprise that on Wednesday, Michele Obama paid a visit to a panda breeding base in the city of Chengdu. But, perhaps in the interests of protecting endangered species, no panda-hugging occurred.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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