First Lady Michelle Obama traveled on Thursday with her mother, Marian Robinson, and her two daughters, Malia (age 15) and Sasha (age 12) on a mission to China. Their goal is U.S.-China diplomacy, which had begun 40 years ago, in the 1970s.
The Obamas and Mrs. Robinson were escorted to various landmarks and institutions by China’s president and its first lady, with the intent of strengthening relations between the two nations. The U.S. delegation was warmly welcomed by all whom they met. Some of their interactions were surprising. When Mrs. Obama spoke with a high school student about what she wanted to do when she graduated, the student replied that she wanted to “turn mathematics into reality.”
While in China, the Obamas became students of the national pastime in the East Asian nation, ping pong (乒乓 Pīngpāng). Mrs. Obama informed her instructor that her husband plays, but not well. Mrs. Obama’s ping pong instruction harkened back to the first U.S.-China match in 1971. The 1971 ping pong match happened by chance after a U.S. player entered the bus of the Chinese team.
The backstory behind this historic event is that it brought together two world powers without relying on politics. In the words of the Chinese ping pong superstar of 1971, Zhuang Zedong said he only knew how to play ping pong, not politics. He said that sometimes the ball goes out of bounds, sometimes it drops, but political views didn’t enter into his matches. In the early 1950s, the Chinese leader at the time, Mao Zedong, pronounced ping pong the national sport of China because peasants could play this low-cost game. In 1971 Mao had been seeking a way to develop relations with the U.S.
The eventful 1971 game led to a diplomatic mission by U.S. President Richard Nixon the year after it occurred. Following that visit, in 1979, diplomatic ties were established between the U.S. and China, thereby breaking China’s isolation from the rest of the world. Mrs. Obama and the women on her team have brought the level of diplomacy to focus on cultural exchange.
At one of the sites on their trip, 15-year-old Malia Obama encountered a classmate from her school in Washington, D.C. who was on a student exchange program at the Beijing high school the family visited. The two schools have had an ongoing affiliation. This connection might symbolize the nature of the visit for the First Family – the intent is educational, not political and, as such, it was purposely not documented by the press. Instead, the visit is marked by learning experiences. The Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan remarked to Mrs. Obama about the virtue of families in harmony, to which Obama assented.
For example, Mrs. Obama has agreed to answer questions regarding study abroad and traveling internationally. And, she will respond to queries submitted by U.S. classrooms for a webinar series on education. With a plan to visit three cities in China, Obama’s mission is to speak with school children about education and the empowerment of youth. In other words, the focus is on peace between peoples and human growth and development. She sees this as part of the necessary diplomatic efforts in building relations between the two nations. Part of the reason for this is the country’s popularity for U.S. students studying abroad. In addition, the U.S. is the most common destination in the world for Chinese students to study abroad.
The trip to China is not without any political overtones, however. Following the family’s day with President Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, Mrs. Obama plans to discuss the differences in open and closed exchange of ideas via the Internet, and the issue of censorship. (Twitter and news sites are blocked in China.) She will plan to walk a fine line by sharing U.S. values without intending to cause the Chinese any embarrassment, or loss of face. Confrontation on human rights will not be part of this trip’s agenda.
The topic may be brought up subtly, however. Mrs. Obama is still deciding whether her family will go to a Tibetan restaurant when they go to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in Southwestern China. This would be seen as a covert statement regarding U.S. criticism of China’s rule over Tibet.
The diplomatic mission led by the women and girls that make up the Obama team will lay the groundwork for U.S. President Barack Obama’s meeting next week with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, Netherlands. Discussion at that meeting is expected to include issues on trade and human rights.
By Fern Remedi-Brown