Why is Michelle Obama talking up education to the Chinese?

Critics say the first lady is missing an important opportunity on her China visit to draw attention to issues like free speech and press freedom.

Andy Wong/AP
US first lady Michelle Obama plays table tennis at the Beijing Normal School, a school that prepares students to attend colleges overseas in Beijing, Friday, March 21, 2014.

Chinese students are no slouches. A portion consistently takes top place in international education rankings and student tests, are often signed up for extra courses outside of school, and study for long hours.

So why has Michelle Obama made education the theme of her first visit to China? It seems she’ll be preaching to the choir on this topic on her week long trip, which started today.

Which may be exactly why the White House picked it. “Her focus on people-to-people relations, her focus on education and youth empowerment is one that we believe will resonate in China,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters ahead of the trip.

“I’ll be talking with students about their lives in China and telling them about America and the values and traditions we hold dear. I’ll be focusing in particular on the power and importance of education, both in my own life and in the lives of young people in both of our countries,” Mrs. Obama wrote in a blog post announcing the visit.

Many China watchers in the United States have lamented that the White House says Obama will not discuss politics on the trip. They point to former first ladies Hillary Clinton speaking about human rights while in Beijing in 1995, and Laura Bush calling for China to exert more influence over the military junta in neighboring Myanmar.

“Public diplomacy matters, but it’s no substitute for policy,” wrote Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations' Asia Unbound blog. “The First Lady has the opportunity to do much more.”

Ms. Economy suggests that talking visa denials for US journalists, limited market access for American films, and free speech challenges for US universities operating in China all fit within the trip’s education theme.

The Chinese press, on the other hand, called the trip a “stroke of ‘gentle diplomacy’,” and praised its theme. “Not each and every one of the 1.3 billion Chinese citizens wakes up every morning agonizing over their nation’s human rights situation,” wrote Chen Weihua in China Daily USA, a state-owned newspaper. “On the contrary, education is probably the top priority for every Chinese family.”

The first lady – along with her mother and daughters Malia and Sasha, and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s wife, Peng Liyuan – spent the first day in Beijing touring the Forbidden Palace, watching students build robots at the Beijing Normal School, and trying her hand at calligraphy.

She is extensively using social media during the trip, tweeting, blogging, and posting pictures to Instagram. And she will answer questions submitted online by American and Chinese students in an event that Discovery Education will stream to participating US classrooms on March 25. 

But Obama’s decision not to take media questions or have journalists accompany her during the China visit sparked further criticism in the US. 

“Refusing to address the press directly sends the wrong message not only to people in the United States but also to Chinese citizens, and most critically, doesn’t reflect the first lady’s one policy-related promise: to share American values and traditions,” Economy wrote in Foreign Policy.   

Obama will speak at the Stanford Center at Peking University tomorrow, visit a seventh grade classroom in the central-west city of Chengdu, and will visit the Great Wall of China, terra cotta warriors in Xi’an, and giant pandas in Chengdu. 

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