Just one day after taking issue with China’s “Great Firewall” of media restrictions, Michelle Obama on Sunday pulled a fast one on photographers hoping to capture something more than the predictable shot of her strolling with daughters along the Great Wall of China.
With daughters Malia and Sasha in tow, Obama and her handlers managed to distract U.S. and Chinese journalists while she and her daughters exited the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall via the touristy toboggan that races visitors from the wall’s heights. No news photographers memorialized the moment.
It was a brilliant fake-out by a publicity-weary presidential spouse, who seems to yearn for fun moments that won’t be accompanied by hundreds of camera clicks. Reporters thought she would descend on a gondola from the Great Wall, the same way she’d gone up and the journalists had gone down. Instead, the journalists were left waiting in a parking lot until learning about her final descent from White House officials.
No doubt it was more thrilling than the dignified ascent. The Great Wall toboggans travel down a curvy metal chute, and riders enjoy views of the forested valley that for centuries has provided stone for the wall that lines the nearby ridges. The passenger – there’s only room for one adult – wields a hand brake. On normal days, when the track is crowded, the brake is applied frequently, to avoid bumping the car in front. But on Sunday, it’s likely the Obamas had the track to themselves and clean sailing for a speedy trip down.
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Obama may not get many more click-free moments during her final three days in China, which conclude in Xian and Chengdu. There, as here, she will be followed not just by U.S. but Chinese reporters, who’ve pushed and shoved throughout to get the best view.
On Saturday, Obama made headlines – at least outside of China – with a speech in which she indirectly criticized the ruling party’s media restrictions and argued that any country’s educational advancement demands an open Internet.
Such pointed aspects of her speech did not find their way into reports by China Daily and other news organs of the Communist Party on Sunday.
The speech did seem to inspire some “netizens“ and Chinese admirers of Obama, however, even before it was delivered.
On Saturday, soon after Obama’s speech at Peking University, a Chinese woman and her daughter approached a McClatchy reporter, asking to see a copy of her prepared remarks. The daughter, Mu Rongduomijia, had hoped to see Obama but settled for taking photographs of her speech.
She and her mother said they had traveled from Dalian, on China’s northeast coast, to see the American first lady. Later that day, the Dalian mother and daughter traveled to the Summer Palace, not far from Peking University, to catch Obama and her daughters taking a tour of this Beijing historic site.
“It’s touching to see so many people waiting for her arrival and her departure, and that’s because of her personal charisma,” Mu wrote in an email message Sunday to the Associated Press, which was shared with McClatchy. The 16-year-old Mu also had high praise for Sasha and Malia, whose “close ties to their grandmother also have touched me.”
On Sunday, Obama held a roundtable with Chinese educators, students and parents that was closed to reporters, except for opening comments by her and U.S. Ambassador to China, Max Baucus.
White House officials explained that the closed session was designed to encourage candid comments. But one participant later interviewed said the session, which started late, was too rushed to allow participants to brief Obama on education in China.
“I thought the discussion was good, but unfortunately it was a little too short,” said Wu Qing, an English professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, one of eight members at the one-hour roundtable on Sunday.
She said Obama “knows a lot about education,” and seemed genuinely concerned about standardized testing in China and unequal opportunities for ethnic minorities in the rural outback.
Asked about Obama’s advocacy of open expression on Saturday, Wu said she wasn’t aware of the speech, but welcomed such comments. “Some of my friends have been arrested and put in jail,” she said. “I think it is important, of course.”
It was a hazy day at the Great Wall after two days of wonderfully blue skies in Beijing, and awareness of potentially sensitive images seemed to govern the day. None of the Obamas wore face masks, despite the smog, and photographers were positioned so that the background of any photographs would be rolling hillsides. Had they been positioned to shoot from a different angle, the background would have been an enormous hillside inscription in Chinese characters, “Loyal to Chairman Mao.”
In Mutianyu village, merchants attempted to hide t-shirts showing President Obama in a Mao hat. Normally such shirts are sold everywhere. After numerous inquiries and much prodding, one vendor produced a box of them. Almost immediately, several other vendors urged her to put the shirts away.
It was not clear who had told the vendors to hide the t-shirts, but it was likely local Chinese authorities. Apparently they don’t want Obama’s family to encounter Mao t-shirts any more than the first family wants to be documented engaging in tourist stunts at China’s most referred landmark.