BEIJING, China — This week’s news that Michelle Obama would not be joining the president in Rancho Mirage, Calif., to meet their Chinese counterparts for a two-day summit starting Friday triggered a wave of disappointment among China-watchers in the United States.
Some had hoped “first-lady diplomacy” would provide a layer of congeniality and intimacy to what’s being talked up as an informal meeting. Michelle Obama’s absence not only dashed those hopes, but prompted concern among China pundits about offending Chinese sensibilities.
It’s “certainly to be noticed,” wrote the New York Times, “by a Chinese public eager for the sight of their first lady joining America’s own groundbreaking presidential spouse on the global stage.”
They needn’t have worried.
A day before the meeting between Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, the news is barely registering with the Chinese public. Aside from a few brief announcements on Chinese web portals, mainstream media are largely muted on the subject.
Comments are also sparse on Weibo, China’s popular Twitter-style service. Although a few users said they felt offended by America’s rudeness, others shrugged it off.
Some jokingly suggested Michelle may have chosen to opt out because of worry she’d be “outshined” by the glamorous Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan.
The gap between nervous Western speculation and Chinese unconcern points to some important nuances in the evolving Chinese perception of the United States.
Michelle Obama is a big celebrity in China. Her speech at the Democratic National Convention went viral on Chinese social media and drew tens of thousands of effusive comments. Her unassuming manner, sense of humor and apparent empathy for people provided a stark contrast to the image of their own officials, whose arrogance, corruption and ineptitude tend to stoke resentment.
The perception of Michelle Obama encapsulates the increasingly popular view of America as the antithesis of China.
Reactions to last year’s presidential campaign and April’s Boston bombing focused on the transparency of the US media, the government’s emergency preparedness and the contrast between what they have at home.
Of course Chinese feelings toward America are far from one-dimensional. Admiration for America, as Max Fisher of the Washington Post has noted, is often complicated by insecurity about how Washington treats Beijing.
That was on display in September, when scores of protesters in front of the US Embassy damaged the ambassador’s vehicle for what they perceived as America’s pro-Japan stance in a bitter dispute with Tokyo over several uninhabited islands.
As China amasses clout on the international stage, however, and as Chinese people’s dissatisfaction with the status quo at home intensifies, admiration for the anti-China appears to be prevailing over the impression of the United States as an arrogant, bullying power interested in containing China.
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Although Chinese still see American actions as intrusive and meddlesome when it comes to large geostrategic issues, most people are too preoccupied with their personal lives to stay tuned to the intricacies of US-China relations, or take offense in what seem like trivial affronts.
One line of Michele Obama’s DNC speech in particular charmed Chinese listeners: “You see, at the end of the day, my most important title is still 'mom-in-chief.’ My daughters are still the heart of my heart and the center of my world.”
So as the two leaders focus on worries about Chinese hacking, tension between their militaries and the thorny issue of North Korea tomorrow, Chinese people don’t seem to mind that she decided to be around Sasha and Malia during their last week in school instead.