(Adds meeting with Chinese president)
By Megha Rajagopalan
BEIJING, March 21 U.S. first lady Michelle Obama
met her Chinese counterpart on Friday, a long-anticipated
encounter during a week-long trip to promote education and
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
U.S.-China relations. Instead, she plans to focus on building
goodwill through soft diplomacy.
The trip to China comes days before U.S. 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.
Xi greeted the first lady Friday evening and said he was
looking forward to seeing her husband in the Netherlands.
"I cherish my sound working relationship and personal
friendship I already established with your husband," Xi told
Obama through a translator.
Earlier, 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
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
"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 U.S. 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 U.S. administration official said.
Former U.S. 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.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING and Julia
Edwards in WASHINGTON; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)