No 'hard politics' for Michelle Obama's China trip?

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As soon as US First Lady Michelle Obama and her family descended the stairs of their plane in Beijing, the online chatter began.

"Michelle's daughters are not scared of the cold," commented one Chinese internet user, noting that Mrs Obama's teenage girls were not wearing jackets.

"I want the same clothes as the president's daughters!" praised another.

Indeed, as soon as it was announced the first lady would fly to China for a week-long visit, many chose to focus on her travel wardrobe.

Major media outlets questioned how Mrs Obama's outfits would compare with her Chinese counterpart, Peng Liyuan. "It's a fashion face-off!" many proclaimed with glee.

But is the significance of this visit really just cloth-deep?

Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, shows US First Lady Michelle Obama, centre, how to hold a writing brush as they visit a Chinese traditional calligraphy class at the Beijing Normal School, 21 March 2014 Some observers are choosing to focus on the wardrobe of Peng Liyuan, left, and Mrs Obama
'Soft touch'

It seems so, say some critics. They're disappointed that Michelle Obama focused her trip on a feel-good topic, the benefits of education, and not on the weightier issues raised by her Democratic Party predecessor, Hillary Clinton.

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On a trip to China in 1995 to attend the UN Conference on Women, Mrs Clinton delivered a fiery speech that listed human rights violations around the world, including many taking place in China.

Michelle Obama and Peng Liyuan are both highly-educated women who managed successful careers before their husbands became leaders. Isn't it possible for them to conduct meaningful conversations about their countries' political differences?

Of course it's possible. But any serious conversation will occur in private.

Both Beijing and Washington are eager for the Obama family's visit to proceed smoothly, without making any Clinton-esque waves. This trip is a rare chance for both countries to emphasise their mutual goodwill.

US first lady Michelle Obama, centre, her daughters from left Sasha, Malia, Michelle Obama's mother Marian Robinson, right, and Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for photograph as they visit to Forbidden City, 21 March 2014 in Beijing, China Mrs Obama, centre, is accompanied by her two daughters and her mother, right

"When briefing the media about Michelle's trip, the US side said the first lady was to steer clear of politics, human rights, trade disputes and other bilateral differences - issues better handled via official diplomacy," noted a commentary published by Xinhua, China's state news agency.

"That approach is right. The uniqueness of the role of first ladies is its soft touch and freedom from the knottiness and even ugliness of hard politics."

Some comments on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, asked whether the Chinese president's adult daughter would also meet the Obamas. But they were quickly deleted by censors.

"It is no accident that one of our first trips as a family is here to China," Mrs Obama told a smiling Mrs Peng this morning, before touring the school. "The relationships between the United States and China couldn't be more important."

The value of that relationship is underlined by the careful execution of the Obamas' week-long itinerary. This trip will yield many photo opportunities, but as promised by China's state media, the "knottiness" of hard politics will not be permitted to surface.

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