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Xi meets Michelle Obama in rare move affirming ties

Publication Date : 22-03-2014


In a rare move signalling the rising importance Beijing places on ties with Washington, President Xi Jinping met US First Lady Michelle Obama, who is on her first solo trip to China.

Experts say this is likely the first time a Chinese President has met a First Lady on her own and reflects that relations between the two giants are in "good shape" despite their differences.

"Relations have developed significantly and it shows both sides are keeping sight of the big picture rather than small differences," Professor Ding Xinghao, head of the Shanghai Association of American Studies, told The Straits Times. "Mr Xi is definitely giving face to Mrs Obama."

Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan greeted Mrs Obama at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse yesterday evening, with Xi touching on the personal relationship he shared with the US President.

"I cherish my sound working relationship and personal friendship I have already established with your husband," he said through an interpreter.

In turn, Mrs Obama, whose mother and two teenage daughters are accompanying her on the week-long official visit, told him how much she enjoyed her first day in Beijing. The interaction among Xi, his wife and Mrs Obama was the first news item on the 7pm Xinwen Lianbo, a daily half-hour Mandarin news bulletin seen as the last word on official pronouncements of the day.

The first-ever meeting between the First Ladies yesterday morning was highly anticipated. Not since First Lady Nancy Reagan was photographed in the 1980s with her counterpart, the stylish Raisa Gorbachev of the former Soviet Union, has a United States First Lady's meeting with the spouse of a foreign head of state attracted so much attention.

Mrs Obama began her day with a Chinese calligraphy lesson before gamely picking up a paddle for table tennis with students at Beijing Normal School, a partner of the Sidwell Friends School in Washington attended by her daughters Malia and Sasha.

In their opening remarks, Madam Peng said she felt an instant familiarity with her guest, while Mrs Obama reaffirmed the importance of Sino-US ties.

"In China, we have an ancient idiom, which means (even) when two people meet for the first time, they may feel as if they have known each other for many years," she said, using the Chinese phrase "yi jian ru gu".

Mrs Obama told her host that "it was no accident that one of our first trips as a family is here to China" - which observers believe had been planned deliberately, given the strong notion of "three generations under one roof" in China. Later in the day, she visited the Forbidden City.

Mrs Obama, who arrived on Thursday evening, will also travel to Xi'an and Chengdu as part of her trip to build people-to-people ties with a focus on education.

With sensitive issues like human rights off the table, attention has focused on the match-up between the two style icons. Yesterday, Mrs Obama was decked out in a casual ensemble of a loose black vest over a white long- sleeved shirt and wide-legged pants, while Ms Peng wore a tailored cornflower-blue skirt suit.


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