First lady Michelle Obama receives a Tibetan scarf as she arrives at a Tibetan restaurant for lunch in Chengdu in southwestern China's Sichuan province on March 26, 2014. Photo: AFP
US First Lady Michelle Obama wrapped up her China trip after having Tibetan lunch and feeding giant pandas in Chengdu, Sichuan Province on March 26.
Obama, her two daughters and mother were served traditional foods, including yak meat pie, boiled yak ribs, bread made with barley and yak butter tea at a Tibetan restaurant in Chengdu, prompting muumurs about "political overtones" on the Internet.
China has criticized the White House for its support for exiled Tibetan the Dalai Lama.
A senior administration official who accompanied Obama said the first lady simply wanted to meet Tibetans in Chengdu.
About 60,000 Tibetans live in Chengdu, a city of about 7 million people, said the White House. The restaurant choice was in accordance with Obama's interest in the rights of minorities in China, her staff told reporters.
Obama has largely avoided thorny, political issues on her China trip, although she made a strong statement on behalf of free expression, choice of religion and unfettered access to information as “universal rights,” during a speech at the Stanford Center at Peking University in Beijing.
Chinese experts played down the impact of Obama's Tibetan move.
"She wants to send a message to the U.S. public that she still remembers the Tibetan people," said Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at People's University of China in Beijing, and a government adviser. "There are serious disagreements on some Tibetan issues between Beijing and Washington, but Tibetan food? Maybe it's good, she can choose any restaurant she likes, it's not too provocative," he said.
Obama's visit should allow her to view China more positively and enrich her husband's understanding of China, said Shi. Given the growing US-China tensions over disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea, Obama's visit can also improve the bilateral relationship, "but it can't be decisive, as Beijing and Washington still hold opposite positions and have a strategic rivalry," he said. "China will not make any concessions in any substantial areas."
First lady Michelle Obama (left) and her mother, Marian Robinson (right), feed apples to giant pandas during their visit at Giant Panda Research Base in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China Wednesday, March 26, 2014. Photo: AP
The Obamas were awestruck while watching LiLi, a 22-year-old grandmother giant panda, and five cubs eat their bamboo at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
Established in 1987 with six sick and hungry pandas rescued from the wild, the base is now home to 128 of the animals. It is also a must-see destination for many visiting foreign dignitaries. There are only about 2,000 of these animals left.
Obama's mom Robinson, wearing plastic gloves, also held out a long bamboo stalk that had a slice of apple at the end of it to feed the pandas.
Panda diplomacy is a major outreach tool of the Chinese government of course, and has been for centuries. Chairman Mao Zedong was thus acting in line with his nation’s heritage when he used the black-and-white and adorable creatures as a means to ease the opening of relations with the United States.
The crucial opening occurred during President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China in February 1972 when Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai promised to give pandas to his wife, First Lady Pat Nixon.
On April 20, 1972, Mrs. Nixon attended the opening of the Panda House at the National Zoo, designed specially to accommodate the pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing.
The pair were a sensation and became a huge tourist attraction in Washington, despite the fact that panda activity level is not high.
“Even those in high levels of government were unprepared for the pandas’ popularity,” according to the Nixon Foundation. “Hundreds of people visited every day, standing several rows deep to catch glimpses of Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing top attractions at the zoo until their deaths in the 1990s.”
Giant pandas are still a popular Chinese export to the US, but nowadays the animalst are leased, not donated. Any cubs born in the US become the property of China after four years, and are returned.