Public diplomacy matters, but it is no substitute for policy. As First Lady Michelle Obama prepares to travel to China, she should consider weaving some policy into what appears to be almost entirely a week-long public diplomacy push. With her mother and two daughters in tow, the first lady will be visiting educational institutions and historical sites and discussing education in the United States and China. As media have reported, Mrs. Obama will “talk to young people about the power of education to help them achieve their aspirations,” speak with them about their lives, and tell them “about America and the values we hold dear.”
Fine and good, but the First Lady has the opportunity to do much more. While the Chinese media have positively reported on the fact that the first lady will not touch the sensitive issues, the U.S. media have been less supportive, drawing some relatively unfavorable comparisons between the limited political aspirations of Mrs. Obama’s trip and those of previous first ladies. Mrs. Clinton’s speech at the 1995 women’s conference in Beijing, for example, stands out for its bold call for China to improve its human rights, and her successor Laura Bush called on China to do more to influence the repressive regime next door in Myanmar.
The simple truth is that it would not take much for Mrs. Obama to link her powerful public diplomacy moment with real political issues. Her theme of education, for example, easily embraces broader issues of cultural and information exchange between the United States and China. When the first lady meets with her counterpart Peng Liyuan, Chinese president Xi Jinping’s wife—herself an educational and cultural force in China—Mrs. Obama could raise the issues of visa denial for American journalists, greater access within China for American films, and the political challenges faced by American universities establishing partnerships with Chinese institutions in China.
Moreover, steering clear of politics is no guarantee of a smooth public relations ride. American public diplomacy in China brings with it its own unique set of potential pitfalls. While the Chinese media are currently quite positive regarding Mrs. Obama’s personal history, as well as her forthcoming trip, they are a fickle bunch. Too much popularity and the first lady could find herself on the outs with the Chinese government and press. During President Obama’s trip to China in 2009, for example, the Chinese government tried to limit the exposure of the highly popular American president to the Chinese people. U.S. ambassador to China Gary Locke also suffered a political backlash as a result of his popularity with the Chinese people. Ambassador Locke appealed to the Chinese people for many reasons: he was of Chinese descent, represented the classic American success story of rags to riches, and conducted himself in an overwhelmingly modest manner. Yet for many within the Chinese government, Ambassador Locke’s “man of the people” appeal proved embarrassing for the contrast it offered with a Chinese leadership defined by special privilege and cloistered living. The state-run media fought back, contributing to a stream of ugly personal attacks against Mr. Locke throughout his tenure.
The cause of public diplomacy and that of furthering U.S.-China bilateral relations are not necessarily one and the same. The first lady and her husband are already extremely popular in China. If Mrs. Obama elects not to use the extraordinary platform provided her in China to do more than woo the Chinese people, she will be selling herself and the interests of the American people short.