WASHINGTON, D.C. (March 17, 2014) — The White House Office of the First Lady released the text of a press conference held by Tina Tchen, who is the chief of staff for First Lady Michelle Obama; with Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for Strategic Communications — on the topic of the First Lady’s travel to China.
MS. GONZÁLEZ: Thank you all for joining us on this on-the-record conference call to discuss the First Lady’s upcoming trip to China. This call is not embargoed. We are joined today by Tina Tchen, the Chief of Staff to the First Lady, and Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting. So I’m going to hand it over to them for some brief opening remarks, and then depending on time, we’ll take a few questions.
MR. RHODES: Thanks, everybody, for getting on the call. I’ll just give some context for the First Lady’s visit in terms of current U.S.-China relations, and then Tina can say a little bit more about the First Lady’s agenda.
First of all, as you all know, the bilateral relationship between the United States and China is really as important as any relationship in the world. China of course now is the second-largest economy in the world. It’s our fastest-growing trading partner, and it’s also a country we cooperate with on a whole host of international issues.
Today, we’ve been very clear that our relationship with China is one in which we welcome the peaceful rise of China, which is in the service of global stability and greater prosperity for our people and the people of China and the people of the region. At the same time, we’re very clear when we have differences with China on a host of issues, so it’s a relationship that allows for both a constructive cooperation, and candor when we disagree.
Over the course of the last year, we have worked to advance our relationship with President Xi Jinping. President Obama of course was able to host him at Sunnylands last year where they were able to cover the full agenda in the relationship and provide direction for how we cooperate going forward on issues ranging from the global economy, to climate change, to security issues like North Korea; maritime security; Iran, where they are obviously part of the P5-plus-1.
So we’ve got a significant and broad agenda with the Chinese. That agenda benefits very much from regular communication at senior levels of our government. So the President saw President Xi most recently at the G20 in Russia, and he will be meeting bilaterally with President Xi at the Nuclear Security Summit at the Hague next week. So notably, President Obama’s next meeting will take place around the same time as the First Lady’s trip.
In terms of the First Lady’s visit, first of all, as a general matter, the First Lady has been a huge asset in terms of reaching out to foreign publics during her time in office. Everywhere we go that she has traveled with the President, and everywhere that she has traveled independently, she has had a tremendous reception and has been able to connect with audiences from Asia to Africa to the Americas. And I think this visit will be in that vein.
And I think her visit and her agenda sends a message that the relationship between the United States and China is not just between leaders, it’s a relationship between peoples. And that’s critically important, given the roles that our two countries are going to play in the 21st century, that we maintain the very regular contacts that we have at the leader-to-leader level, but that we’re also reaching out and building relationships with people, particularly young people.
So her focus on people-to-people relations, her focus on education and youth empowerment is one that we believe will resonate in China. We also believe it’s a message that is really fundamentally in the interest of the United States. Because if young Americans are able to understand China, able, through our educational exchanges, to study in China, that will be invaluable experience for one of the principle actors in the global economy. So the type of exchange programs that she’ll be able to highlight are ones that are very mutually beneficial and that forge networks between Americans and Chinese, and then also allows our citizens to better understand and thrive within the global economy.
So we see this visit from a foreign policy perspective as a critical opportunity to continue to build connections with the Chinese leadership but also the Chinese public to lift up education and education exchanges in ways that, frankly, sometimes they don’t get the necessary attention. But in doing so, I think it will be clear that there’s a profound interest to U.S. businesses who very much value a skilled workforce with an understanding of China. And it’s valuable for young people in China and the United States who can expand their own horizons through education and through the exchanges.
So with that, I’ll turn it over to Tina.
MS. TCHEN: Thanks, Ben. And we’ve just sent out guidance from the Press Office that gives you the specific itinerary as well — we’ll just give out a brief, quick overview.
When the First Lady goes to China, she’ll be going to three very different cities. We will start in Beijing, but then also to the interior of China, to Xi’an, which is known as the — where the Terra Cotta Warriors are, one of the most ancient — in China, and then end the trip in Chengdu in the Sichuan province.
And along the way there, as Ben points out, really the overall message of this trip will be on people-to-people exchange; on the importance of cultural exchanges between our young people and the shared importance of education for young people both in China and in the United States; and how important it is for our young people to know one another, have experience with one another, and how, as Ben pointed out, that’s not only good for those individuals in their own careers, but it is really vital for the competitiveness of our U.S. global economy.
In Beijing, the First Lady will see Madame Peng, the First Lady of China, on our first day there. She will visit a school with Madame Peng and also have a private dinner with Madame Peng. On her second day in Beijing, she’ll give a speech at the Stanford Center at Peking University, where she’ll get an opportunity to meet with Chinese and American students who have studied abroad in each other’s countries and really speak to how studying abroad and how technology can be a powerful tool for cultural exchange.
In Xi’an, we’ll do a visit to the Terra Cotta Warriors and the Walled City there. But then when she goes to Chengdu, the First Lady will also have a second speech at the Number No. 7 School, which is a high school in Chengdu — be able to meet with young people there. This high school is particularly known for its technology and its reach beyond just Chengdu but out into the rural areas, and — of learning with students across the rural Sichuan provincial area. So the First Lady’s speech will be sent out to those students as well.
This is an important message across the board on the importance of education. China is the fifth most popular destination for American students studying abroad. We have about 200,000 Chinese students studying in the U.S., more than from any other country. And in the fall of 2009, President Obama announced the 100,000 Strong initiative, which is to increase the number and diversity of American students studying in China. So as a result, right now we have more than 20,000 American young people studying every year in China. This includes the U.S.-China Fulbright, which was the first Fulbright program in the world in China.
And also, the First Lady will have an opportunity to acknowledge private sector involvement and those in the private sector who have stepped up, including folks like Steve Schwarzman, the CEO of Blackstone, who has founded and has financed a scholarship program at Tsinghua University in Beijing, modeled on the Rhodes Scholarship program, which will be an important cultural exchange program for young leaders in the United States with China and around the world.
So she’ll be focusing on the power of technology — her own personal story, which we think resonates with young people around the world. As someone from a modest background — she has parents who didn’t go to college but who emphasized education always to the First Lady and her brother, encouraged them to use education as a way to succeed and move forward.
And she’ll be able to share her experience with Americans. One of the things the First Lady had wanted to do is to use these engagements overseas and when countries come here to visit as well to teach American young people about other countries. So we have a partnership with PBS LearningMedia and Discovery Education, who will be sharing the First Lady’s trip and following it along the way with their network of millions of teachers of students across the U.S. And the First Lady will be posting blogs and travel information for each step of the trip along the way on whitehouse.gov. And we encourage young people and all Americans to follow along and learn more about China through the First Lady’s trip.
I will say, just in closing, on a personal note, I am a first-generation Chinese American. My parents emigrated from China in the late ‘40s, so this is — will be my fourth time returning to China but the first time, obviously, in a role such as this and my first time to the interior of China. So it is a real honor and privilege, and I think we are all, here in the First Lady’s office, quite excited about the upcoming trip.
So with that, I think we are happy to take questions.
Q. Yes, thanks for doing this call. As you know, there are lots of issues between the United States and China, issues ranging from human rights to trade to counterfeiting. Do you think that those issues will be raised during the First Lady’s visit, or is this not the appropriate forum for that? And related to that, you mentioned talking about the U.S. image in China and trying to boost the people-to-people contact. How do you assess the U.S. image right now in China? Is this a trip that you hope could help improve on that a little bit?
MR. RHODES: Thanks for the question. On your first question, look, our view is very much that we handle issues where we have differences with China — on human rights; on trade, as you mentioned; on cyber — in our direct conversations with the Chinese government. I’m sure President Obama will be raising a number of those issues directly with President Xi Jinping.
We don’t think that the First Lady should make this a focus at all of her trip. This is a very different purpose. This is the purpose, again, of building those people-to-people connections; of reaching out to young people in China, broadening the ties between our two countries. So we’ll continue to raise those issues in all of our diplomatic contacts with the Chinese. I think the First Lady’s message and I think her — the nature of her visit is quite different.
On your second — well, the only thing I’d add to that, though, is that — look, I think one of the things that we always do in China is speak about the United States and speak about America, speak about our values. And I think the First Lady’s story itself sends a powerful message about the ability of someone of a disadvantaged economic background from a minority group to ascend to the position that she did in private life and now as First Lady.
So I think that, frankly, the most powerful message we can deliver is one of the examples of not just the First Lady’s life story but of America and our values. And so I think that will be very much a part of her message. And that alone I think speaks to things like respect for human rights that are interwoven into the DNA of the United States of America.
On your second question, I think the relationship between the United States and China is very complex. As a general matter, I think the President and First Lady have had positive connection with the people of China. The President’s visit, it was very well-received there back in 2009. At the same time, there are always tensions between our two countries, and I think that there’s some suspicion — in the United States, there’s suspicion of China and mistrust, and in China, there’s suspicion and mistrust of the United States on some issues. And that can be exacerbated, for instance, when there are trade disputes or when they’re the types of tensions we’ve seen in Northeast Asia in recent months.
And I think that it is important to break through that mistrust, and the First Lady’s visit is an opportunity to do that. So we don’t expect the people of China to agree with all of our policy positions at any given moment, but the more they understand the United States, the more they understand the President and the First Lady and their values and their priorities, we think the better it is for both of our countries.
And so I do think it’s beneficial that we are able to go beyond simply what may be in the newspaper on a given day — and reaching out and trying to forge these broader connections to people in China. So I do think it’s an opportunity to address public opinion in China, which sometimes can shift back and forth based on whatever the tension of the day is, not unlike, frankly, the public opinion of China here in the United States.
Q. Thank you so much for doing this call, appreciate it. And I have questions — maybe if Tina and Ben both want to weigh in on that. How is Mrs. Obama preparing for this trip? Is she doing briefings with officials within the United States government, or talking to people outside of government? Who’s manifested to travel with her in either official or unofficial capacities? As you know, her predecessors on official trips often took U.S. government officials with them as well as a press pool.
MS. TCHEN: Let me jump in on the preparation. As with all of her trips — technically, as with all of the events she does, whether it’s domestic or international — the First Lady is doing briefings and is reading material.
But most notably, for this trip, you may recall that two weeks ago she — once we had announced the trip, she had wanted to actually meet with young people here in the United States, and did a visit to the Yu Ying School here in Washington, D.C., which is an immersion charter school, public school, here in D.C., an elementary school that has young kids immersed in Chinese.
And the sixth grade class there last year took a trip, saw many of these cities and sights that we’ll be seeing on our trip. And the First Lady got a briefing — that is the briefing she’s gotten — one of the briefings she’s gotten so far is from these sixth graders at the Yu Ying School who actually were quite informative and took her through a series of slides, not only of the sights she would see, but I thought they were very insightful and talked about misconceptions that they as young people in America had going into China, and how those misconceptions were wrong. They thought everything would be old; it turns out, it was quite new and large. And they thought it would be very rural, but they were in lots of places where it was very modern and very urban — and gave her tips on food and little Chinese phrases.
So she has, as she always does in preparation, I think, dug into this to learn about the culture, about where she will be going.
I’m not going to speak to the specific manifest on the trip. Obviously, she’ll be staffed from our office, and as with our other trips, with staff and who know the area that we’re going to.
MR. RHODES: Only thing I’d add is, as with all the First Lady’s international engagements, she is briefed beforehand by NSC staff as well, just to get a sense of the context for her visit. And as with all of her foreign travel, she’ll be supported by NSC staff on this trip as well.
Q. Thanks for the call, I appreciate it. Tina, a quick question for you — can you talk about the personal significance of this trip for Mrs. Obama? She’s traveling with her — both her mother and daughters.
MS. TCHEN: You know, the First Lady has talked about the importance of young people here in the United States learning about other cultures. She believes that about her own children, and has seen this as a really unique opportunity to share a very different part of the world with her two daughters and with her mother as well. I think, as she said before, before they came here to the White House, Mrs. Robinson had not done any travel internationally, so the opportunities when she’s been able to do that have been a real treat I think for Mrs. Robinson, for the First Lady, for her daughters as well to travel together and to see these places and experience them together.
And I think they understand the significance as well — and I will say this as a Chinese American — of family and of three generations of family traveling together, which I think the Chinese will appreciate, and will appreciate the ties and the bonds that the Obama family have with one another across generations. And this is a great opportunity for the Obama family to experience that, and I think for the Chinese to see that as well in an American family.
Q. Thank you for doing this. My question is, has President Obama given instruction for the trip? Has he said anything about the trip? Secondly, could you talk a little bit — specifically about what kind of interaction the two First Ladies will have? Thank you.
MR. RHODES: Sure. On your first question, the President has certainly talked to the First Lady about the trip, is well aware of her itinerary — and the fact that at Sunnylands the President was very pleased to host not just Xi Jinping but Madame Peng as well, and had a good interaction with her. And so I think he’s able to share that background as well with the First Lady.
As a general matter, I feel like the President and President Xi have gotten off to a strong start in having a very candid — and forthright through his exchanges. They spoke just the other week on the situation in Ukraine, among other issues. So this is part of I think what is a good working relationship between President Obama and President Xi, and the First Lady may be able to expand that connection as she goes and meets with the First Lady of China as well.
I don’t know if Tina has anything to add on the interaction with the First Lady.
MS. TCHEN: No, I mean, I think the First Lady is very much looking forward to it. We will meet Madame Peng on our first day, full day in Beijing at a school, a high school. I think that — understanding the shared interest in education, and will take us through a high school there. And then she will accompany the First Lady and her family to the Forbidden City and will take the First Lady through the Forbidden City before they’re able to join each other for a meal, a private meal and a private performance later on in the evening.
That is a wonderfully warm and welcoming itinerary that Madame Peng has laid out for the First Lady, and we’re looking forward to it.
Q. Hi, thanks very much for doing the call. Can you give us a rough estimate of what it will cost?
MR. RHODES: As a general matter, we don’t disclose the details associated with the security of either the President or the First Lady. This question comes up on many trips.
What I would say is that determinations about the protection of the President and First Lady are made by the Secret Service. We don’t interfere in those decisions at all, nor do we publicize the details of that information.
Q. Hey, guys. Following up on Bloomberg’s question, can you tell me, does the White House or does the First Family reimburse the U.S. government for the cost of the children and the grandmother going on this trip? And is there any expectation of any protests in any of these areas while the First Lady is in China?
MS. TCHEN: Well, again, it’s similar to Ben’s question. We are not discussing or disclosing information regarding the details of the logistics of the trip. And as for protests, I’ll let Ben take that one.
MR. RHODES: Look, I wouldn’t — I don’t have a crystal ball, but I wouldn’t anticipate there being any significant opposition to the First Lady’s presence I think. In general, we have found that the President and other senior leaders get a very warm reception in China, which is also a country that of course values very much hospitality.
So I think at all three stops, we’re looking forward to good meetings and good interaction, again, not just with officials but with the Chinese public.
Q. Hi, thank you very much. I know it’s not in the schedule but I’m just wondering if there’s any possibility that the First Lady would have an opportunity to interact with the President while she’s there, some kind of informal contact? And the other question I had was, given that both Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton took on a little more — with a little more bite when they were visiting in China, was there a conscious decision, at what level, for the First Lady to have more of a soft diplomacy approach on this trip?
MR. RHODES: I’ll just say, on your second question, that when Hillary Clinton went, she went for the specific purpose of that conference where she delivered a very powerful address. I think the First Lady goes in a different context and with a different type of trip.
And the fact of the matter is, there’s no question or dispute as to where the United States stands on a range of issues associated, for instance, with human rights. The President raises them publicly and privately with China’s leaders and will continue to do so. And again, I think what the First Lady really brings is the power of her own story, and the power of American values, which I think, as I said, is completely interwoven with our commitment to human rights and the ability for everybody to not just express themselves freely but — an opportunity to reach their full potential.
MS. TCHEN: As to the meeting with the President, President Xi, we don’t have anything on the schedule. We certainly welcome the opportunity should that arise.
MS. GONZÁLEZ: Thank you, everyone, for participating. We have time for one last question.
Q. Hi, Ben and Tina. Thank you for doing this. I actually went through many Chinese reports. They believe the First Lady’s visit may relieve the tension of the Dalai Lama’s visit to the White House recently, and could improve the atmosphere between the two countries. So is improving the U.S. and China relation part of her mission to China? And also, just out of curiosity, how is Sasha’s Mandarin ability right now? And is the First Lady learning Mandarin with Sasha right now? Thank you.
MR. RHODES: On your first question, we had planned this trip long before the Dalai Lama visit, so I would not associate it in any way with that event. This type of visit takes a long time to plan and I think the First Lady has been looking for an opportunity to go to China.
I’d just say two other things, though. First of all, the fact that the President recently met with the Dalai Lama speaks to the fact that the United States will continue to raise issues of concern related to human rights. On improving U.S.-China relations, absolutely, insofar as the First Lady’s ability to go visit multiple Chinese cities, to visit with leaders and young people in China, to the extent that that can improve the U.S.-China relationship, that would be a significant benefit of the trip. And we believe that she has proven very capable at doing exactly that in her previous travel, both with the President and independent of the President.
So we do hope that one of the impacts of the visit is that it further advances the relationship between the United States and China, again, not just at the leader level but between our people.
And Tina may have wanted to talk about Sasha. (Laughter)
MS. TCHEN: Well, Sasha had taken some Chinese at a much younger age and learned about Chinese culture. She is not currently speaking Mandarin as her language, so she — I can’t speak to her proficiency, but I think she is taking a different language now. And as you know, Chinese is a very — Mandarin is a very beautiful, very difficult language to learn. I think that the kids at Yu Ying taught the First Lady a few — actually with the five year olds at Yu Ying — taught the First Lady a few phrases which she may be able to use. But beyond that, I doubt that you’ll hear her speaking Mandarin.
MR. RHODES: All of those people know more Mandarin than I do. (Laughter)
MS. GONZÁLEZ: Thank you very much, everyone.
MS. TCHEN: Thank you.