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Michelle Obama Convenes 'First Wives Club' In China



This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

It is spring break and a lot of us our taking our kids on vacation to the Grand Canyon, maybe Florida. The First Lady Michelle Obama has taken her girls to China for the school break. It's supposed to be a working vacation, of sorts. There will undoubtedly be some sightseeing, but it's hard as the first lady of the U.S. to go to China and not dip into geopolitics at some point.

To talk us through the potential pitfalls is Evan Osnos. He was the Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker for four years. He's back in Beijing now. Thanks so much for being with us, Evan.

EVAN OSNOS: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Let's start with what's been called a meeting of the First Wives Club in Beijing. Michelle Obama spent a day with Chinese president's wife, who is known for her taste in fashion and the arts, as is the first lady. Is that all they have in common?

OSNOS: Well, actually, they have more in common than perhaps any previous first lady's ever had. If you think about it, Michelle Obama was a Harvard-trained lawyer who supported her husband when he was making his way through the State Senate in Illinois. And Peng Liyuan was arguably, China's most famous folk singer. And she was in a way the breadwinner for her family while her husband was making his way up the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party.


OSNOS: So they have something in common.

MARTIN: Is there something especially appealing to the Chinese about a visit like this, a multi-generational visit, where it's not the first lady but it's also her daughters and her mom?

OSNOS: There is. And that's I think part of the design here. I mean, the goal has been very clear from the outset. The White House has said they're trying to get beyond the kind of sensitive, difficult issues that are obviously monopolize so much of the time when these two countries get together. And they're trying to focus on what are the broader issues at stake here? Some of the common points between the United States and China. And that, after all, is about exchange - cultural exchange, educational exchange. In a way, the visit was designed to try to make it as little like a presidential summit as possible.

MARTIN: So what does a trip like this by Michelle Obama, what does it actually achieve? I mean, is this just about endearing her to the Chinese people? And what good does that do in real terms?

OSNOS: Well, the goal is what the White House describes as people-to-people diplomacy. But there are a couple of concerns. One of the concerns, of course, is that public diplomacy matters but it's not a substitute for policy. And so, there have been some commentators in the U.S. who have said there may be a way of the spirit of this broader subject of cultural and educational exchange, to talk about some of the things that are important to that. For instance, ensuring that American journalists have access to China.

MARTIN: How closely do the Chinese press scrutinize a trip like this? Are they really paying attention to every stop along the first lady's tour and trying to read things into it?

OSNOS: They have been, yeah. The Chinese press has been very pleased by the design of this visit. One of the things that is interesting about this first lady on the Chinese side, Peng Liyuan, is that she's one of the first, first lady's that has ever really had a profile in China. Her predecessors were really anonymous figures. They played no role in public conversation, public debate. And what the Chinese government is trying to do is to create their own Michelle Obama. They want to create somebody who has a public profile because they recognize that Chinese people today expect more of their leadership.

You know, after all, this is a generation that uses the Web to be able to criticize, to talk about what it is that they want out of the people running the country. And on some level, for all of its misgivings about the United States, the Chinese government looks at what the Obama family represents in America and they want to replicate some of that.

MARTIN: Evan Osnos, his upcoming book is called "Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China." It'll be published in May. Thanks so much for talking with us, Evan.

OSNOS: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.