Michelle Obama to Sit Out California Summit

With President Xi Jinping’s first bilateral U.S.-China summit set for this weekend, opinions are divided over First Lady Michelle Obama’s decision to stay home for her daughters’ final week of school. The California summit is taking a casual form, and many had hoped to see Mrs. Obama socializing with her Chinese counterpart, Peng Liyuan, who is herself a trailblazer among Chinese first ladies. From the Telegraph:

Mrs Obama’s absence is likely to limit her Chinese counterpart’s role at the two-day California meeting, which begins on Friday, and may be interpreted as a snub, analysts said.

Zhang Ming, a political scientist from China’s Renmin University, predicted Mrs Obama’s absence would “not go down very well” in Beijing.

“First lady diplomacy is also very important and the US side has failed to cooperate,” he said. “According to normal diplomatic etiquette this is very strange. It shouldn’t be like this.” [Source]

While many people have speculated over the possible and expected Chinese reactions, the Chinese government has not yet responded officially to the news. From the Washington Post:

This might seem, from the U.S. perspective, pretty banal: Of course [Obama] wouldn’t want to serve as a set-piece at some humdrum summit meetings. But from the Chinese perspective, it’s an unexpected snub, an affirmation of deeply held suspicions that Washington does not respect China and, perhaps most importantly, a relatively minor but unnecessary setback to the much-needed trust-building session before it’s even begun.

The two things to understand here are that (1) Michelle Obama is a big star in China; her presence at the summit was eagerly anticipated in the Chinese media and would have been a nice win for Xi; (2) China still views itself as vulnerable and weak compared to the United States, which informs both its respect for the United States and its deep-seated insecurity about how China is viewed in Washington. Those two factors help explain why China-watchers say that the first lady’s absence could offend both Xi and the many Chinese citizens watching the summit, which is after all the exact opposite of what the White House wants to accomplish. [Source]

Foreign Policy published two opposing views on Michelle Obama’s deision. Dan Drezner argues she should be traveling to California:

Look, I get that being the First Lady must be fraught with political peril at times, and that the wife/wife interaction feels just a bit retro. And I get that Michelle Obama has focused — rightfully — on being a good mother to her children. But this is one of the few moments during her husband’s term of office where what she does matters a small amount to world politics.

She should be in California. [Source]

While Isaac Stone Fish argues that she should not, due to her connections with the People’s Liberation Army:

Peng is a civilian but holds a rank equivalent to major general in China’s PLA, and she would sing in full military garb before her husband became so high-profile. Perhaps most notoriously, she allegedly sang in support of Chinese troops in Tiananmen Square in 1989, following a bloody crackdown on protesters on June 4 of that year.

When was the last time Michelle Obama — or indeed any U.S. first lady — publically met and socialized with a military representative of a non-ally country? It’s a smart meeting for Mrs. Obama to skip. Peng’s no Asma al-Assad, but she’s no Carla Bruni either. [Source]

With or without the public display of the two first ladies, the summit itself is expected to be a private affair, the New York Times reports. But the media attention focused on Ms. Peng shows that she is transforming the image of the Chinese presidential wife:

As for Ms. Peng, Americans are not likely to see much of her or her husband. The arrangements for the get-together at Sunnylands, the 200-acre estate built a half-century ago by the publishing billionaire Walter H. Annenberg, who died in 2002, are intended to provide comfortable seclusion as the two leaders discuss issues that challenge and divide them, like nuclear proliferation, cybersecurity and trade.

But in Ms. Peng’s travels elsewhere with Mr. Xi — in Russia and Africa in March, and this week in Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica and Mexico — she has been anything but the traditional, retiring Chinese first lady. To find a spouse of similar prominence, China hands say, one has to reach past the Communist takeover in 1949 to Madame Chiang Kai-shek, who unsuccessfully worked alongside her husband to hold on to power and then to get it back, even addressing a joint session of Congress and three times making the cover of Time.

“This is a new kind of first lady,” Mr. Li said of Ms. Peng. [Source]


Businessweek profiles Peng and her celebrity status
which preceded her marriage to Xi:

Peng toned down her image in the years before her husband ascended to China’s highest office. When it was clear to the political elite a few years ago that Xi was a strong contender to succeed President Hu Jintao, Peng stopped appearing on the New Year’s Gala and accepted only a few public singing engagements. She didn’t disappear from the public view entirely, however, as past Chinese first ladies have. Peng accepted offers from China’s Ministry of Health and later from the World Health Organization in Geneva to become a “goodwill ambassador,” promoting awareness of tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment and supporting antismoking health campaigns. She even hammed it up with Bill Gates in Beijing last year on World Anti-Tobacco Day; they both wore red T-shirts that read, “Say No to Second-Hand Smoke.”

This is the first time a Chinese president’s wife has engaged in advocacy of any sort, and she has already reshaped the role of first lady in China. She has been named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People and Forbes’s 100 Most Powerful Women in 2013. “Peng Liyuan is the first First Lady in the PRC’s history,” says Cheng Li, a senior fellow and expert on Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution. “We should not underestimate what she has already accomplished, or may be able to accomplish.” As first lady, Peng is also highly unusual in that she was known to the nation long before her husband—and is now being reintroduced. [Source]