Mrs Obama right to focus on education

Updated: 2014-03-21 07:53

By Chen Weihua (China Daily USA)

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US First Lady Michelle Obama is visiting China to promote cultural exchanges and stress the importance of education, but no US news media outlets seem to have got this message.

Instead, the reporting so far has been mostly about why Mrs Obama has not put human rights on her agenda, and why the trip with her two daughters, Malia and Sasha and her mother Marian Robinson, is being paid for by taxpayers, why the White House press corps cannot join the entourage, and why only a few of her events are open to the press.

These may be legitimate questions, but they largely reflect Western news media's obsession with sensational headlines, which cultural exchanges and education clearly aren't.

Yes. Talking with China on human rights is critical. The largest developing nation still has a long way to go to improve in this regard. But that doesn't mean every US leader and spouse visiting China must focus on this one topic, not to mention that the US itself has not put its own house in order given its own problematic record in recent years. Besides, not each and every one of the 1.3 billion Chinese citizens wakes up every morning agonizing over their nation's human rights situation.

On the contrary, education is probably the top priority for every Chinese family. And it is a key concern for ordinary families in the US as well. No one would dispute the influence education has on an individual, a society, a nation and the world. Education has a direct impact on the improvement of human rights in a nation. That is especially true when it comes to the vast underprivileged rural population in China, particularly women.

In this regard, the US First Lady sets a powerful example. Coming from a modest background, her father worked as an employee of a water plant in Chicago and her mother was a homemaker, she graduated with excellence from Princeton University and later Harvard Law School.

While Mrs Obama has been a strong advocate for empowerment through education, China's First Lady Peng Liyuan has been equally passionate about the subject of children's education, especially rural children's education in China. These were her primary concerns while serving as a member to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in previous years.

So there is no doubt that the two first ladies will find a lot in common.

Human rights are an important issue, but there is simply a long list of other issues that deserve no less attention. You can feel that when traveling outside of Washington.

In Richmond, a city about a two-hour drive from Washington, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe was talking on Wednesday about how significant it is for the Richmond Ballet, the State Ballet of Virginia, to visit Beijing next year and how vital trade with China and Chinese investment are to his state. He is due to visit China in October to promote trade ties.

That is also why Mrs Obama's push for educational exchange, such as the 100,000 Strong Initiative, is also critical. The initiative announced by President Obama in 2009 aims to increase the number of US students studying in China. There are already more than 230,000 Chinese students studying on US college campus, and each year, 20,000 US students go to study in China. Such experiences will not only shape the life of these young people, but also how their nations will manage such a key bilateral relationship.

Former first ladies Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush were probably right for raising human rights issues during their visits to China. They shouted slogans and grabbed a lot of headlines. But Michelle Obama's focus on education and cultural exchanges, which may not make the headlines, certainly carries no less substance and significance.

Have a wonderful trip, Mrs Obama, Malia, Sasha and Mrs Robinson!

The author, based in Washington DC, is deputy editor of China Daily USA.

(China Daily USA 03/21/2014 page15)