China claims victory in battle of first ladies
Michelle Obama was game enough to play ping pong and paint calligraphy on her first day in Beijing, but to Chinese eyes the restrained elegance of their First Lady, Peng Liyuan, won the day
Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, shows U.S. first lady Michelle Obama, center, how to hold a writing brush Photo: AP
By Malcolm Moore, Beijing
4:13PM GMT 21 Mar 2014
It was the eagerly awaited meeting of the world’s two most important first ladies.
But there was a clear winner when Michelle Obama met her counterpart Peng Liyuan for the first time in Beijing.
As photographs and television footage began to emerge of Mrs Peng and Mrs Obama touring the Chinese capital, the country’s online forums were quick to claim victory in the “battle of the First Ladies”.
“Our First Lady is so graceful and elegant, leaving Michelle far behind,” said one critic. “We have won this time,” remarked another. “Ours is more refined and eye-catching,” said a third.
There was praise for Mrs Peng’s belted trouser suit, with flashes of crimson at her neckline to match her red earrings and clutch, but some questioned whether her high heels were sensible enough for the cobbles of the Forbidden City. But without them, Mrs Obama would have towered over her.
Mrs Obama won plaudits, however, for gamely embracing three of China’s favourite hobbies: ping pong, calligraphy and geeky robot-building.
The two first ladies began their day together at Beijing Normal School, an elite secondary school which is currently hosting 30 American exchange students, each paying £30,000 for their year abroad.
Visiting a robotics class, Mrs Obama was introduced to a robot in the shape of snowflake that promptly became snarled in an obstacle course.
At the next desk, a cheeky pupil asked Mrs Obama if she wanted to try out his “bad boy” robot, that was “really naughty”. She passed the controls to her daughter Malia.
Mrs Obama’s trip represents a new approach in Washington’s efforts to charm Beijing: a first ladies’ club.
Partly it was a slightly stiff apology for the snub last year when Mrs Obama failed to show up for a meeting at Sunnylands, California, between Xi Jinping, Mrs Peng and her husband.
At other moments, it was more like a family holiday dressed as a diplomatic mission. One photograph, a holiday snap to treasure, showed Mrs Obama, her teenage daughters and her 76-year-old mother surrounding Mrs Peng, their tour guide to the Forbidden City.
For China it was also an experiment. No politician’s wife has ever hosted a visiting dignitary. While Mrs Peng has won praise for her presence by Mr Xi’s side on his overseas trips, she does not have a high political profile at home.
As she rigidly picked up a paintbrush to paint a scroll for Mrs Obama, Mrs Peng, a star singer who has performed before huge audiences across China, betrayed a hint of stage fright. “I am somewhat nervous too,” she said as she wrote.
China remains unsure about the role of the First Lady. The country is supposed to be led by a consensus of politicians, and it is nervous about the wives of its leaders.
“The last high profile politician’s wife we had was Madame Mao,” remarked one local government official ahead of Mrs Obama’s visit. “And that did not turn out so well.” Jiang Qing, Chairman Mao’s fourth wife, was executed for her crimes during the Cultural Revolution.
Both Mrs Obama and Mrs Peng steered well away from politics, and indeed barely spoke during their tour of the school, according to the reporters present.
“The US finds it hard to accept the Communism and nationalism of China, but can easily accept Chinese food, calligraphy and other culture,” said Shen Dingli, the head of the US Research Centre at Fudan university. “So after they have spent time together, eaten together and watched a show together, they will feel closer together and that may help the political process,” he said.
He added that the presence of the Obama girls and their grandmother would show the Chinese public that even America’s first family is “normal” and not “iron-fisted” as some Chinese believe. “The trip will have an imperceptible, gentle, mollifying effect,” he said.
The image of the Obamas as two hard-working parents who delegate childcare duties to granny would play well with the Chinese, the White House predicted in advance, aware of how many Chinese families are forced to do the same.
For Malia and Sasha Obama, whose privacy has lately been closely guarded by the White House, it was a rare occasion in the spotlight. Both girls, however, spent most of the day standing politely behind their mother.