Obama, who is visiting China with her mother and two daughters, is
expected to forgo discussion of trade, human rights and the tangle
of other issues that have weighed on U.S.-China relations. Instead,
she plans to focus on building goodwill through soft diplomacy.
The trip to China comes days before U.S. President Barack Obama is
scheduled to begin bilateral talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping
in the Hague on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit next
Xi greeted the first lady Friday evening and said he was looking
forward to seeing her husband in the Netherlands.
"I cherish my sound working relationship and personal friendship I
already established with your husband," Xi told Obama through a
Earlier, Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan accompanied the visitors on
a visit to the Beijing Normal School attended by elite Chinese
students and American teenagers from prestigious schools such as
Exeter, Andover and Sidwell Friends on study abroad programs.
Obama, a Harvard-educated lawyer, wore wide-legged black slacks and
a loose black vest.
Conversation between the two women was stilted during a morning
visit to a calligraphy class, especially because both spoke via
their own translators.
"I'm nervous," Obama said, as she picked up her calligraphy brush.
"Don't be nervous," Peng replied in English.
Peng, an adept calligrapher, then drew the four characters of an
ancient aphorism about virtue and presented it to Obama.
The two also visited a robotics class, and Obama played ping-pong
The two seemed to warm to each other during a jaunt through the
Forbidden City late on Friday morning. Peng took care to ensure that
Obama's daughters understood the history of buildings with names
like "Hall of Supreme Harmony" and "Palace of Heavenly Purity", a
senior U.S. administration official said.
Peng, dressed immaculately in a cornflower-blue skirt suit, with a
red leather clutch and matching stud earrings, appeared to speak
limited English, but gamely ventured a few comments to foreign
students and the Obama family.
But the classroom lectures as well as the tour of the Forbidden City
were conducted only in Chinese.
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Obama's weeklong trip includes visits to the western historic city
of Xi'an and the southern city of Chengdu, where she will visit a
panda preserve. She will visit the Great Wall on Sunday, and also
plans to meet Chinese education experts.
She expects to raise the issue of Internet freedom — controversial
in China — in a talk at a prominent Beijing university on Saturday,
the U.S. administration official said.Former U.S. first lady Hillary
Clinton criticized China's human rights record during her husband's
Peng, a glamorous soprano who, a decade ago, was far more famous
than her husband, has often shared Xi's spotlight since he became
president — in sharp contrast to many of China's low-key former
Peng, who holds a civilian rank equivalent to major general in the
People's Liberation Army, has accompanied Xi on several foreign
trips, and won praise as an outspoken advocate for HIV/AIDS
education, long a taboo subject in China.
She has broken the mould of Chinese first ladies in past decades,
who have stood in the shadow of Jiang Qing, the infamous widow of
Mao Zedong, the founder of Communist China.
Jiang led the "Gang of Four" that wielded supreme power during the
1966-76 Cultural Revolution, and received a suspended death sentence
in 1981 for causing the deaths of tens of thousands in that era of
Many in China hoped to see Peng interact with Michelle Obama during
an informal summit between the two presidents in California last
June. But Mrs. Obama's decision to remain in Washington with her
daughters dashed those hopes.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Julia Edwards
in Washington; editing by Clarence Fernandez)
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