An American in China Pulls off A Diplomatic Coup
   2014-04-02 17:57:57      Web Editor: Xu Fei

An American in China pulls off a diplomatic coup
27 MARCH 2014


Los Angeles --- You'd have to say that the prominent lady from America, with the impressive academic credentials, handled herself pretty well. So perhaps it was no surprise that she seemed undaunted by the political complexity of the assignment, seemed not to cower at all in the face of the diplomatic risk, and in fact seemed to absolutely (but not outrageously) flourish in the spotlight of an important diplomatic effort.
And what in fact was that assignment?
It was to go to China and present yourself as a citizen of the United States without any apology and yet not insult your host by telling them how to run their country.  
But then again -you are going to China not as any old U.S. citizen but as a special VIP indeed and so how do you not act like some Big Foot-in-Mouth American telling the world what it is doing wrong and why America is almost always right?
But this - exactly - was the extraordinary achievement of Michelle Obama, the First Lady of the United States these past few days.  So for those who don't know how to pull this off, let us learn some lessons from her. Now that the weeklong trip to the Mainland is concluded, definitive judgment is not premature. The trip was a triumph and may even have added to soften tensions and misunderstandings in the always-complicated Sino-US bilateral faceoff.
How exactly did Mrs. Obama pull off the coup?  To put it plainly she talked softly and never once mentioned the big stick.  She confined herself to the realities of actual American life and left the bragging to others back home (who in some case don't know what they are talking about - but that's another story).  She told stories about her childhood and her growing up and her studying hard and allowed her audience to fill in the blanks and arrive at their own observations and conclusions.
For example, she was frank with Chinese high school students when she told them "many decades ago, there were actually laws in America that allowed discrimination against black people like me, who are a minority in the United States. But over time, ordinary citizens decided that these laws were unfair. So they held peaceful protests and marches."
The message therein could not have been clearer.  But see how the First Lady managed not to hit the Chinese gong with an American sledgehammer?
Then on the universally painful issue of studying hard (a reputation for which American students, rightly or wrongly, do not globally have), Mrs. Obama recounted having to take a bus for an hour each way to and from school and then even having to "wake up at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning to study even more."  There was almost the suggestion, which would have been true, that it was through great effort that Michelle Obama managed to do her undergraduate work at Princeton and then her law schooling at Harvard.  It was not through family connections but through merit.
To China, Mrs. Obama did not go alone and she did not take her with her half the U.S. State Department.  Instead, she traveled with her two daughters - Malia, 15, and Sasha, 12 - and her mother.  That display alone would trump any number of American government propaganda films about the continuing tradition of the family in American life. The Chinese can be big on tradition.
Her speech at Peking University - arguably the nation's most revered - covered a wide range of issues about education but did not fail to include comments regarding freedom of speech and religion, including, in her words, "the right to say what we think and worship as we choose." 
The value of this kind of quality representation by an American in China is incalculable. I have been writing about China and Asia regularly since 1995, and it is hard to recall a more adroit American effort on the mainland. At the same time, it would be foolishly self-centered to fail to note that credit for the success of this event must also go to China itself.  The First Lady was politely received, and the students apparently really connected with her message.  (My own experience with Chinese high school and university students in general has been equally positive and impressive.) The entire speech, without any editing, was made readily available to the Chinese public in both English and Chinese.
So let us not forget to give a lot of credit to the government and people of China itself.  After all, we in the Western media are the first to jump on Beijing when it makes what we regard as a miscalculation or error or even blunder.  Do we not have the largesse to at least to acknowledge that China also handled this potentially tricky week with finesse and warmth?
For once, we have had a pause in Sino-US tension.  Credit goes to the Chinese for their hospitality and to the First lady for her skill and sincerity.
Mr. Obama - we have no desire to intrude in the slightest on your private life. But it would seem from a great distance that you married very well indeed. You are a lucky man.
Tom Plate, Loyola Marymount University's Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies, is the author, most recently, of "In the Middle of the Future: Tom Plate on Asia." (Marshall Cavendish Publishers). He is the founder and editor-in-chief of Asia Media, now at


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