HONG KONG: A Positive Review of First Lady Obama’s Mainland China Visit

By Tom Plate, reprinted from the South China Morning Post (27 March) —  You’d have to say that US first lady Michelle Obama handled herself pretty well during her trip to China. Perhaps it was no surprise that she seemed undaunted by the political complexity of the assignment, didn’t cower in the face of the diplomatic risk and flourished in the spotlight of an important effort.

She managed to present herself as a US citizen without any apology, and yet not insult her hosts by telling them how to run their country.

For once, we have a pause in Sino-US tensions. Credit goes to the Chinese for their hospitality and to the first lady for her skill and sincerity.

For those who don’t know how to pull this off, let us learn some lessons from her. The trip was a triumph and may even help soften tensions and misunderstandings in the always-complicated Sino-US bilateral face-off.

How exactly did she pull off the coup? To put it plainly, she talked softly and never once mentioned the big stick. She confined herself to the realities of actual American life and left the bragging to others back at home. She told stories about her childhood, growing up and studying hard, and allowed her audience to fill in the blanks.

For example, she was frank with Chinese high school students when she told them “many decades ago, there were actually laws in America that allowed discrimination against black people like me, who are a minority in the United States. But, over time, ordinary citizens decided that these laws were unfair. So they held peaceful protests and marches.”

The message could not have been clearer. But see how the first lady managed not to hit the Chinese gong with an American sledgehammer?

Then, on the universally painful issue of studying hard, Obama recounted having to take a bus for an hour each way to and from school and then even having to “wake up at 4.30 or five in the morning to study even more”. There was almost the suggestion, which would have been true, that it was through great effort that Obama managed to do her undergraduate work at Princeton and then her law schooling at Harvard. It was not through family connections.

Obama did not go alone to China, and she did not take with her half the US State Department. Instead, she travelled with her two daughters – Malia, 15, and Sasha, 12 – and her mother. That display alone would trump any number of American government propaganda films about the continuing tradition of the family in American life. The Chinese can be big on tradition.

Obama’s speech at Peking University covered a wide range of issues about education, but did not fail to include comments regarding freedom of speech and religion.

The value of this kind of quality representation by an American in China is incalculable. At the same time, it would be foolish to fail to note that credit for the success of this event must also go to China itself. The first lady was politely received, and the students apparently really connected with her message. The entire speech, without any editing, was made readily available to the Chinese public in both English and Chinese.

For once, we have a pause in Sino-US tensions. Credit goes to the Chinese for their hospitality and to the first lady for her skill and sincerity.

Tom Plate, Loyola Marymount University’s distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies, is founder and editor-in-chief of Asia Media, at asiamedia.lmu.edu

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Soft power

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