Associated Press

BEIJING (AP) _ U.S. first Lady Michelle Obama arrived in China on Thursday for a weeklong visit that will avoid politics and focus on education and people-to-people contacts.

Mrs. Obama’s schedule includes a speech to Chinese and American students at Peking University and visits to the cities of Xi’an in the west and Chengdu in the southwest. She is traveling with her mother and two daughters.

On Friday, she is to spend the day with Peng Liyuan, the wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“I think this is a very good opportunity to improve the China-U.S. relations, as the first lady can represent the soft side of diplomacy,” said Wang Dong, a political scientist at Peking University’s School of International Studies.

“Michelle Obama herself has been accomplished in areas such as women’s rights, children issues and education, and I think members of the Chinese public are anticipating her visit with a positive attitude,” Wang said.

The first lady intends to avoid contentious issues such as human rights, trade and cybersecurity, according to White House officials preparing the trip.

They said she will use her personal stories to express American values. On Tuesday, she is to visit a high school in Chengdu.

“Her focus on people-to-people relations, her focus on education and youth empowerment is one that we believe will resonate in China,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, told reporters ahead of the visit. “We also believe it’s a message that is really fundamentally in the interest of the United States.”

The first lady and her family also are to visit the imperial palace and Great Wall in Beijing. While in Xi’an, she plans to visit ancient city walls and the Terra Cotta Warriors Museum. In Chendgu, she plans to visit a panda conservation center.

The trip provides an opportunity for President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping to cultivate a personal relationship through their wives following their meeting in Sunnylands in California last year, Wang said.

“Such a personal relationship with mutual trust is crucial, as the China-U.S. relationship has entered a more challenging phrase,” Wang said.

Peng, Xi’s wife, accompanied her husband on the Sunnylands visit but did not meet Mrs. Obama, who stayed in Washington. Her absence left some Chinese grumbling and the visit allows the first lady to make up for it.

“I think this provides a natural reason to stay engaged” before Xi and Obama meet again, Wang said.

The trip also gives Peng unusual prominence in a Chinese official culture that usually keeps leaders’ spouses in the background.

Peng, a popular folk singer, was better known than Xi before he became Communist Party leader and president.

“She has a good presence on television,” said Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “This is a formidable soft power China can use for the world to see China is not a monolithic society.”

Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, called Peng a “national asset.”

“She is more than qualified for the job,” Shen said. “Before the Chinese people knew President Xi, they knew Peng Liyuan. She is a household name.”

Chinese media have compared the dress styles of the two women with side-by-side photos.

The newspaper China Daily devoted a full page Thursday to their fashion choices.

 “They know that what they do will be put under a microscope, including the clothes they don, and they parlay that kind of influence into exposure for causes with larger meanings,” the newspaper said