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Michelle Obama’s China Choice: Public Diplomacy vs. Politics

by Elizabeth C. Economy
March 14, 2014

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama (L) participates in a language class with teacher Crystal Chen for pre-school students at the Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School ahead of her upcoming trip to China, in Washington on March 4, 2014. (Yuri Gripas/Courtesy Reuters) U.S. first lady Michelle Obama (L) participates in a language class with teacher Crystal Chen for pre-school students at the Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School ahead of her upcoming trip to China, in Washington on March 4, 2014. (Yuri Gripas/Courtesy Reuters)


Public diplomacy matters, but it is no substitute for policy. As First Lady Michelle Obama prepares to travel to China, she should consider weaving some policy into what appears to be almost entirely a week-long public diplomacy push. With her mother and two daughters in tow, the first lady will be visiting educational institutions and historical sites and discussing education in the United States and China. As media have reported, Mrs. Obama will “talk to young people about the power of education to help them achieve their aspirations,” speak with them about their lives, and tell them “about America and the values we hold dear.”

Fine and good, but the First Lady has the opportunity to do much more. While the Chinese media have positively reported on the fact that the first lady will not touch the sensitive issues, the U.S. media have been less supportive, drawing some relatively unfavorable comparisons between the limited political aspirations of Mrs. Obama’s trip and those of previous first ladies. Mrs. Clinton’s speech at the 1995 women’s conference in Beijing, for example, stands out for its bold call for China to improve its human rights, and her successor Laura Bush called on China to do more to influence the repressive regime next door in Myanmar.

The simple truth is that it would not take much for Mrs. Obama to link her powerful public diplomacy moment with real political issues.  Her theme of education, for example, easily embraces broader issues of cultural and information exchange between the United States and China. When the first lady meets with her counterpart Peng Liyuan, Chinese president Xi Jinping’s wife—herself an educational and cultural force in China—Mrs. Obama could raise the issues of visa denial for American journalists, greater access within China for American films, and the political challenges faced by American universities establishing partnerships with Chinese institutions in China.

Moreover, steering clear of politics is no guarantee of a smooth public relations ride. American public diplomacy in China brings with it its own unique set of potential pitfalls. While the Chinese media are currently quite positive regarding Mrs. Obama’s personal history, as well as her forthcoming trip, they are a fickle bunch. Too much popularity and the first lady could find herself on the outs with the Chinese government and press. During President Obama’s trip to China in 2009, for example, the Chinese government tried to limit the exposure of the highly popular American president to the Chinese people. U.S. ambassador to China Gary Locke also suffered a political backlash as a result of his popularity with the Chinese people. Ambassador Locke appealed to the Chinese people for many reasons: he was of Chinese descent, represented the classic American success story of rags to riches, and conducted himself in an overwhelmingly modest manner. Yet for many within the Chinese government, Ambassador Locke’s “man of the people” appeal proved embarrassing for the contrast it offered with a Chinese leadership defined by special privilege and cloistered living. The state-run media fought back, contributing to a stream of ugly personal attacks against Mr. Locke throughout his tenure.

The cause of public diplomacy and that of furthering U.S.-China bilateral relations are not necessarily one and the same. The first lady and her husband are already extremely popular in China. If Mrs. Obama elects not to use the extraordinary platform provided her in China to do more than woo the Chinese people, she will be selling herself and the interests of the American people short.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by John Collignon

    Type your comment in here…Michele Obama should enjoy her trip on the taxpayer’s dime and keep her mouth closed about policy.

  • Posted by ANTHONY HILL

    Please use your time and effort (and our money) to visit Veterans Hospitals all over my United States of America. Feel free to bring your mom and kids to visit our vets too. Tell your husband it’s OK if he can’t come.

  • Posted by Hameed Shaheen

    That will be historic dawn of the East ,when First Lady Michelle Obama sets feet on Chinese soil; we wish her an all-time high success.

  • Posted by Chuck Ditzler

    Economy desires that the lives of Chinese improve, and she has contributed to emphasizing the environmental problems in China.

    However, this post starts: “Public diplomacy matters, but it is no substitute for policy.” No–public diplomacy of this kind is useful, maybe even necessary, for good policy. In fact, maybe one of the reasons for our current confrontation with Russia might be due in part to the failure to pursue more of this kind of public diplomacy between the US and Russia. I can’t be sure since I specialize on China, not Russia.

    Michelle Obama’s approach on this trip is more likely to strengthen US-China relations and lead to the results that Economy and other critics call for than would direct attacks by her at this time. My guess is that many of those who have spent a great deal of time living in China would think the same. But I agree with critics that Ms Obama should be open to questions on this trip from journalists, including questions that seem confrontational, so as to demonstrate our values.

    Human rights in China do need to improve. They have generally been improving since 1978 and have been improving in more recent years. I’m optimistic that they will improve in the near future.

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