The first lady, her mother, her two kids, plus numerous White House aides and security personnel are going to tour China this month, but White House officials are refusing to say how much the taxpayers will pay for the trip.
However, they did say it would be a thrill for everyone on the trip, including for Michelle Obama’s top aide, Tina Tchen.
“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,” said Tchen, just after she declared that “my parents emigrated from China in the late ’40s, so this … will be my fourth time returning to China but the first time, obviously, in a role such as this.”
“The first lady has been looking for an opportunity to go to China,” said Ben Rhodes, the White House’s deputy national security advisor for strategic communications.
“I think the first lady is very much looking forward to it,” said Tchen.
“We will meet [the Chinese president’s wife] Madame Peng on our first day … [and] 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,” said Tchen. “We’re looking forward to it.”
Both officials declined to reveal the cost of flying the family to and from China.
“As a general matter, we don’t disclose the details associated with the security of either the president or the first lady,” Rhodes said.
“We are not discussing or disclosing information regarding the details of the logistics of the trip,” said Tchen.
The first lady and the family will travel to China from March 19 to March 26. She will visit the capital Beijing and two northwest cities, Xi’an and Chengdu.
She’ll be accompanied by her mother, Mrs. Marian Robinson, and daughters, Malia and Sasha Obama.
The first lady has taken her mother on several previous trips, including to Spain.
The 2010 trip to Spain cost taxpayers at least $487,000. A 2011 trip to southern Africa cost at least $424,142. The cost estimates were uncovered by Judicial Watch, a D.C.-based watchdog group.
However, the trip will be worth the expense, officials said.
“I will say this as a Chinese-American,” said Tchen, that Chinese people will appreciate “three generations of family traveling together … and the bonds that the Obama family have with one another across generations.”
“I think that, frankly, the most powerful message we can deliver [to Chinese people] is one of the examples of not just the first lady’s life story but of America and our values,” Rhodes said. “That alone I think speaks to things like respect for human rights that are interwoven into the DNA of the United States of America.”
“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,” Rhodes said.
Michelle Obama grew up in a humble family that was entwined with the Democratic political machine in Chicago. Her father worked as a Democratic political activist in Chicago, she earned money by babysitting for Jesse Jackson, and she eventually married an up-and-coming political activist — Barack Obama — in a church whose pastor was an influential player in local politics, Jeremiah Wright.
The first lady’s “focus on people-to-people relations, her focus on education and youth empowerment is one that we believe will resonate in China,” Rhodes claimed.
Roughly 200,000 Chinese people are enrolled at U.S. education centers, while roughly 20,000 Americans are studying in China.
“In terms of the first lady’s visit, first of all, as a general matter, the first lady has been a huge asset” on foreign trips, said Rhodes.
“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,” he said.
However, Rhodes added, there are real political disagreements between China and the United States.
“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.