BEIJING (Reuters) – U.S. first lady Michelle Obama arrived in Beijing on Thursday evening, the official Xinhua news agency said, beginning a hotly anticipated week-long trip during which she will promote education and cultural ties.
Obama, a Harvard-educated lawyer, is expected to spend Friday with China’s charismatic first lady, Peng Liyuan, who is admired at home as both a glamorous songstress and fashion icon.
Besides Beijing, Obama will visit the western historic city of Xi’an and the southern city of Chengdu, where she will visit a panda preserve. Obama’s two daughters are accompanying her, as well as her mother.
She also plans to visit American and Chinese students to promote education and cultural exchanges, and visit historical landmarks like the Great Wall of China.
A Xinhua commentary said the trip was “especially meaningful” given tensions in the U.S.-China relationship, including President Barack Obama’s recent meeting with the Dalai Lama, whom China sees as a violent separatist.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the visit would help deepen ties between the world’s two largest economies.
“We believe that this visit will play an important role in increasing mutual understanding between the two countries and expanding friendship,” Hong told reporters ahead of Obama’s arrival.
Obama is expected to focus on education during her trip, foregoing mention of thornier issues such as trade and human rights – an approach the Xinhua commentary said it agreed with.
“The uniqueness of the role of first ladies is its soft touch and freedom from the knottiness, and even ugliness, of hard politics,” the commentary said.
Still, many internet users have already begun criticizing Obama for planning to lunch at a Tibetan restaurant in Chengdu – a tacit sign, some said, of U.S. support for the Dalai Lama.
Former U.S. first lady Hillary Clinton criticized China’s human rights record during her husband’s presidency.
News of Obama’s arrival spread fast on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblog, where users speculated on what the trip would bring – as well as what Obama would wear and eat.
“Two intellectual women playing the game of great power politics – how beautiful,” wrote one user.
(Reporting By Megha Rajagopalan, Ben Blanchard and Li Hui; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)