First ladies Michelle Obama and Peng Liyuan show sky is the limit in improving relations

Michelle Obama and Peng Liyuan won hearts and minds of the people with their endearing brand of 'gentle diplomacy'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 March, 2014, 4:55am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 March, 2014, 4:55am

The assertion by Mao Zedong that women hold up half the sky is often quoted in China. It speaks of the respect due to the work and role played by women in all areas of society.

Mao's words seemed even more pertinent over the past week after the visit to China by the US first lady Michelle Obama. In a matter of days, she did more to improve Sino-US relations than countless, often male, politicians despatched from Washington in recent years.

In Chinese culture there is an ambivalent attitude towards women's involvement in politics; Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang dynasty (618-907) and Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) are two of the more infamous rulers in China's history.

But if social media is any guide, Obama and her Chinese counterpart Peng Liyuan have completely won hearts and minds with their brand of soft diplomacy.

Both enjoyed successful careers before coming first ladies and appear to have gained both the respect and affection of much of the public. Obama made it clear before her arrival that her trip to China would focus on education and cultural exchanges and she would steer clear of the hard issues of politics.

Obama chose to visit landmarks including the former imperial palace the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors Museum in Xian. She took time with her family to feed apples to pandas at the Giant Panda Research Base in Chengdu, took part in a tai chi session and also played table tennis with a student.

As soon as Obama and her family descended the steps of their aircraft on arrival in Beijing, the chatter on the internet and in state media was welcoming and accommodating.

During her stay, the Chinese translation of "Michelle" became the hottest search topic on Baidu, China's largest internet search engine. It was also among the top 10 search terms on Sina Weibo, the country's most popular microblogging platform and much of the discussion centred on the first meeting of the two first ladies.

According to a tally from the US embassy in Beijing, photos, videos and stories about the trip garnered more than one billion page views from a country with a population of 1.35 billion.

State-run media also covered the visit extensively with headlines such as "First lady diplomacy", "Soft diplomacy" and "Gentle diplomacy".

"First lady diplomacy can be an important method for bringing China-US relations closer," said a commentary posted online by the People's Daily.

The China Daily said Obama was right not to get embroiled in political disputes and to concentrate on winning hearts and minds. "That approach is right. The uniqueness of the role of first ladies is its soft touch and freedom from the knottiness and even ugliness of hard politics."

Xinhua said the visit by Obama would "help soften China-US relations".

"The first ladies are unique ambassadors and the trip stands out as a stroke of 'gentle diplomacy'," the agency said in a commentary.

Still, Xinhua said it would be naive to expect Obama's visit to iron out all differences between China and the United States.

But perhaps the best evidence of the success of Obama and her mother and daughters' trip was the overwhelming compliments and messages of support posted on social media in China.

On person said on Sina Weibo that maybe China and the US would have a better chance of resolving their differences if it was left to the two first ladies to sort them out.

Another referred to that old saying from Mao again. If the US and China's first ladies shake hands, they really do hold up half the sky. Maybe their husbands should take note and learn a little.