Michelle Obama pushes soft diplomacy on visit to China

BEIJING - US first lady Michelle Obama met her Chinese counterpart on Friday, a long-anticipated encounter during a week-long trip to promote education and cultural ties.

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 US-China relations. Instead, she plans to focus on building goodwill through soft diplomacy.

The trip to China comes days before US 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 week.

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 programmes.

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 with students.

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 US 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.

Obama's week-long 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 US administration official said.

Former US first lady Hillary Clinton criticised China's human rights record during her husband's presidency.

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 first ladies.

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 mayhem.

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.

First ladies Michelle Obama and Peng Liyuan meet in Beijing