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China’s first lady won’t see U.S. counterpart on visit

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WASHINGTON » Whatever President Barack Obama and China’s president, Xi Jinping, do this weekend to make their highly anticipated meeting in California as informal, even intimate, as both sides profess to want, there is one thing they will not do: double date.

Xi will arrive Friday at the famed Annenberg estate near Palm Springs with his wife, Peng Liyuan, a glamorous singer and military general who in just months as China’s first lady has elevated that role to a prominence and popularity unknown in the Communist era. But Obama will be stag: Michelle Obama plans to remain in Washington with their daughters, who finish the school year this week, her office confirmed Tuesday.

For a presidential meeting that is intended not so much for substantive agreements as for relationship-building between Obama and Xi, Michelle Obama’s absence will rule out some extra dollops of personal diplomacy. And according to China experts in both countries, it is certain to dismay a status-conscious Chinese public eager for the sight of their first lady joining America’s own groundbreaking presidential spouse on the global stage.

The Chinese "will be disappointed," said Cheng Li, a senior fellow on China policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based research organization. "They certainly have very high expectations for this meeting."

"There will be more coverage in China than in the United States" of the Obama-Xi visit, Li predicted, and since the Chinese are "extremely sensitive," Michelle Obama’s absence "certainly needs some explanation." However, he added, the Chinese will readily accept family obligations as the reason for the first lady’s absence.

The two women are about the same age: Peng is 50, Obama 49. Both recently made the Forbes list of the world’s 100 most powerful women and Time’s list of the 100 most influential people. Both are mothers as well as professionals. Peng and Xi’s daughter attends Harvard, and apparently also has a mind of her own: She reportedly resisted her father’s attempts to get her to return to China and a college there once he took power.

On Thursday evening, as Barack Obama flies toward California, Michelle Obama will attend a fundraiser in Washington for Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic Party chairman and Clinton confidant who is running for governor of Virginia. Her office would not provide further information about her weekend plans.

As for Peng, Americans are not likely to see much of her or her husband. The arrangements for the get-together at Sunnylands, the 200-acre estate built a half-century ago by publishing billionaire Walter H. Annenberg, who died in 2002, are intended to provide comfortable seclusion as the two leaders discuss issues that challenge and divide them, such as nuclear proliferation, cybersecurity and trade.

In Peng’s travels elsewhere with Xi, however — in Russia and Africa in March, and this week in Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica and Mexico — she has been anything but the traditional, retiring Chinese first lady. To find a spouse of similar prominence, China hands say, one has to reach past the Communist takeover in 1949 to Madame Chiang Kai-shek, who unsuccessfully worked alongside her husband to hold on to power and then to get it back, even addressing a joint session of Congress and three times making the cover of Time.

"This is a new kind of first lady," Li said of Peng.

In Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, an elegant Peng, who wears works only of Chinese designers, took her turn banging drums with a steel band. The newspaper China Daily reported that the musicians were playing two of the folk singer’s "signature" songs when she joined in — one about farmers’ happiness with China’s economic policies in the 1970s and a patriotic tune about a Communist army unit during China’s civil war. The prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago was quoted as saying that he had chatted with Peng in English, although it is unclear how fluent she is.

Like U.S. first ladies, but unlike spouses of past Chinese leaders, Peng has taken a high-profile role in promoting social causes — against tuberculosis, AIDS and tobacco use — as an ambassador for the United Nations and the World Health Organization. When President Frangois Hollande of France went to Beijing in late April, the French were astounded that Xi hosted a foursome for lunch: the two presidents and their wives, a tableau that will not be repeated at Sunnylands.

Peng’s history holds one discordant note as she seeks to represent a softer side of China to the world: A photo widely circulated on the Internet, but hastily pulled in China, is said to show a young Peng, in army uniform, serenading troops in Tiananmen Square in 1989, after the bloody crackdown on dissenters there. The woman looks to be ardently belting out a tune as rows of soldiers look on.

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