First ladies and U.S.-China relations

Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan smiles during the cremony in which Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) was given the key to the city in Mexico City, on June 5, 2013. 

Michelle Obama lands in China tomorrow, where she’ll meet with Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan in Beijing before touring the country to speak about education. She’s not traveling alone. Her daughters and mother will accompany her on the visit, a detail sure to draw praise in a country that values filial piety.

The two women may have more in common than their husbands do. Both Obama and Peng are passionate education advocates, both are known for their fashion sense, and both have daughters. The trip will be a much-needed break from tense visits between officials of the two countries in recent years – Obama plans to focus her events on cultural exchanges between the two nations instead of discussing thorny topics like human rights or trade disputes. The trump card, however, will be who Obama is bringing with her. “The fact that she has two pretty daughters coming to China is a big sell,” says education reformer Jiang Xueqin, “the fact that she’ll be hanging out with the first lady is a big sale. The fact that she’s a rag to riches story – through hard work and schooling, she went to Harvard Law school and became first lady of the United States – that’s a message that’s very sympathetic in China.”

Obama will visit schools in Beijing, Xi’an, and Chengdu in her week-long visit. She aims to talk about the value of an American education, something the Chinese already understand. Most Chinese recognize the shortcomings of their test-based education system and those who have the means are sending their children to universities in the US in droves - there are now more than 200,000 Chinese students studying in the US, and US universities are establishing campuses all over China to meet a rising demand.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

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