Disappointment in China over Mrs. Obama’s absence

President Barack Obama holds Chaplain (Captain) Emil Kapaun's Easter stole in the Oval Office during a greet with Kapaun's family in the Oval Office, April 11, 2013. The President and First Lady Michelle Obama met with members of Chaplain Kapaun's family before awarding him the Medal of Honor posthumously during a ceremony in the East Room. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

WASHINGTON (AP) — While President Barack Obama is meeting up with China’s president in California this weekend, some Chinese are disappointed that first lady Michelle Obama won’t be on the trip.

The first lady’s office would only say she was staying in Washington to be with family. Monday is younger daughter Sasha Obama’s 12th birthday, and Mrs. Obama early on declared herself “mom in chief” and always has said her girls come first.

Friday and Saturday’s summit between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping are their first since Xi was installed in March. They were meeting at Sunnylands, a sprawling desert estate with a private golf course in Rancho Mirage.

A White House official said the Chinese government asked about Mrs. Obama’s plans when the trip was scheduled several weeks ago and was told she was not able to make it. The official, speaking on a condition of anonymity without authorization to discuss trip negotiations on the record, said the Chinese never complained or raised the question again.

But a person in Beijing familiar with the preparations said that when National Security Adviser Tom Donilon visited last week to hammer out plans for the summit, both sides talked as if the two women would meet.

Publicly, Beijing is muting any hurt feelings over Mrs. Obama’s no-show at Sunnylands. Asked whether her absence was regrettable, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said, “Regarding the relevant arrangements on the U.S. side, we respect them.”

But disappointment over Mrs. Obama’s absence was palpable if not vehement in some Chinese mainstream and social media. Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, is a rare commodity in Chinese politics — a popular political spouse known for her style and poise who has been accompanying Xi on his diplomatic travels.

Peng holds the rank of major general in the People’s Liberation Army and was a popular singer on state television, best known for her stirring renditions of patriotic odes, often while wearing full dress uniform. Many Chinese were interested in seeing how she compares with the United States’ own glamorous, high profile first lady.

Zhang Ming, an international studies expert at Renmin University in Beijing, was quoted on social media as calling Mrs. Obama’s absence from their husbands’ meeting as “strange for normal diplomatic protocol.”

“The Chinese public will actually be quite unhappy, because they are quite proud of their first lady’s role in diplomacy,” Zhang said in a telephone interview. “If Michelle doesn’t go, it will make it difficult for our first lady to perform.”

Zhang and others expressed skepticism that Mrs. Obama was skipping the trip to be with her daughters.

“Chinese people might be ‘extremely sensitive’ or maybe they like to pursue perfection, but when they see that the first lady has let a ‘family trifle’ influence ‘a major state event,’ they will inevitably be disappointed,” said the pro-Beijing Hong Kong newspaper Ta Kung Pao in a commentary on its website.


Associated Press reporter Gillian Wong and researcher Zhao Liang in Beijing contributed to this report.

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