Michelle Obama had two choices for the weekend, according to news accounts. Option one: spend time with her two daughters, who have just finished the school year. Option two: jet out to Rancho Mirage, California, for a faux-intimate summit at a borrowed mansion with President Xi Jinping of China and his wife. Apparently, it wasn’t much of a choice: She’s staying in Washington and leaving the diplomacy to her husband.
This isn’t sitting well with some. The New York Times, for example, says that Michelle Obama’s absence will “deprive the meeting of a layer of informality,” while disappointing “a Chinese public eager for the sight of their first lady joining America’s own groundbreaking presidential spouse on the global stage.”
Dan Drezner at Foreign Policy calls the first lady’s absence a “diplomatic own-goal that could have been avoided.”
In any case, the promised intimacy of what’s being called the Sunnylands summit was never likely to be realized, even with the comparatively informal (compared with his stiff predecessor) new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping. As the Times reports, Xi and his wife won’t even be staying at the Sunnylands estate with President Barack Obama -- instead, Xi is booked at the Hyatt up the road.
As for his wife, the glamorous Peng Liyuan, she’s probably at the Hyatt, too. Although she certainly would have time to spend with her U.S. counterpart, it’s a stretch to imagine that she would have license -- from her husband and from the Communist Party -- to engage in the “first-lady diplomacy” envisioned by some U.S. commentators. A photo-op, perhaps tea, would be the best that anybody could hope for.
To be sure, Peng is the first Chinese first lady since Madame Mao to have a public profile. But the persona she rolled out in March is that of a clotheshorse with a distinguished entertainment career in her past and little else. She has made no public pronouncements of her own, has adopted no public initiatives and hasn’t even submitted to the most basic interviews. No doubt, that relatively reticent role isn’t entirely of her own making, but it should be a reminder of the limitations of her position to those who hoped for a U.S.-style first lady. The very notion of a photo of a first lady remains something of a novelty in China. It’s going to take time -- years, probably -- to go further.
Of course, the Chinese public would enjoy a photo of the two first ladies together. But there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that the Chinese are clamoring for a meeting (neither Peng nor Michelle Obama is trending on Chinese search engines or microblogs). Nor are they likely to be disappointed to learn that the U.S. first lady was busy with her daughters. In fact, from the perspective of an education-crazy Chinese public, Michelle Obama is behaving precisely as a parent should.
(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog and a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)