Michelle Obama Begins Trip to China Focusing on Education; First Lady’s Team Tries to Avoid Political Overtones

Michelle Obama at Yu Ying, a Washington charter school. (Credit Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)
Michelle Obama at Yu Ying, a Washington charter school. (Credit Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

Michelle Obama’s trip to China starting on Wednesday will be nonpolitical, the White House says, a “people-to-people exchange” emphasizing the importance that both nations place on education. As if to underscore the point, no reporters are traveling with the first lady, and she does not plan to give interviews while there.

But with the United States and China locked in disagreements over trade, cyberweapons, territorial claims and, as always, human rights — and with President Obama preparing to meet with President Xi Jinping next week at a nuclear summit meeting — political overtones will be almost impossible to avoid.

“Politics can be imposed,” said Melanne Verveer, who accompanied Hillary Rodham Clinton to China in 1995 as the first lady’s chief of staff. “People will want to put a political spin on the trip.”

Mrs. Obama is drawing scrutiny for her decision to travel with her mother and her two daughters, who are on spring break, bringing to mind a vacation she took to Spain in 2010 with her daughter Sasha and some friends. She and her entourage paid for their lodging and entertainment. But the security cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars, and the trip was criticized as lavish.

Some conservative commentators are calling the China trip a junket. The White House will not say how much it will cost.

Tina Tchen, Mrs. Obama’s chief of staff and a first-generation Chinese-American, said a multigenerational visit would be appreciated by the Chinese, who value tradition.

Mrs. Obama’s aides describe the visit as a cultural exchange unencumbered by official talks at the presidential level. “Her focus on people-to-people relations, her focus on education and youth empowerment is one that we believe will resonate in China,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser.

Mrs. Obama will be promoting educational exchange programs, emphasizing the need for American and Chinese youths to understand each other’s cultures as their economic fortunes become further intertwined. About 200,000 Chinese are studying in the United States, more than from any other country, compared with about 20,000 Americans studying in China, White House officials said. The Obama administration is trying to raise that number.

“If young Americans are able to understand China, able, through our educational exchanges, to study in China, that will be invaluable experience for one of the principal actors in the global economy,” Mr. Rhodes said.

Mrs. Obama will document her trip on a White House blog. Students will be able to follow Mrs. Obama and participate in virtual discussions using the websites for PBS LearningMedia and Discovery Education.

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SOURCE: DAVID S. JOACHIM 
The New York Times