The US First Lady arrived in Beijing yesterday for a seven-day visit, just a week before her husband is due to meet Chinese president Xi Jinping at a nuclear summit.
Observers have asked why she took along her two daughters and her mother on what is clearly official business.
Mrs Obama is deliberately avoiding political issues, so as not to cause offence. Officially the trip is a “people-to-people exchange”, yet no reporters have been allowed to fly on her plane.
Unlike her two previous solo foreign visits, there will be no interviews and she will not take questions, as media access has been severely curtailed.
Mrs Obama’s host will be Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan, and her team have claimed the image of the two together sends a powerful message on its own.
Mrs Obama’s daughters, Malia, 15, and Sasha, 12, and her mother, Marian Robinson, are joining her on her visits to Beijing and two northwest cities, Xian and Chengdu.
The trip will take in the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors, and include an address from Mrs Obama to US students at Peking University. That has made little difference to FreedomWorks, a right-wing political group, which wrote: “The Chinese junket continues a pattern Mrs Obama has followed since her husband’s election, with extravagant trips abroad or expensive vacations.”
Judicial Watch, another right-wing group, claimed the Obamas spent a record $7.4 million (£4.5m) on their three holidays in 2013, including their Christmas vacation in Hawaii.
The White House has refused to reveal the cost of the Chinese trip.
According to the New York Times, those close to Mrs Obama insist she has deliberately cultivated an apolitical image during her time in office, with initiatives on non-threatening issues such as healthy eating.
However, it also pointed out that in 1995, Hillary Clinton attacked China’s record on human rights at a United Nations conference in Beijing whilst she was First Lady.
Thorny issues such as trade and Tibet will not be on the agenda for Mrs Obama, which some believe is a mistake.
Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia studies at the US Council on Foreign Relations, has said she “would like to see [Mrs Obama] follow in the tradition of the previous first ladies and address some of the substantive issues … there are significant American interests that she could advance were she to try”.
Another aspect of Mrs Obama’s trip that has raised eyebrows is her reported praise for private equity tycoon Steven Schwarzman, chief executive of Blackstone Group, who has donated $100m for a scholarship programme in Beijing. He once compared Mrs Obama’s husband to Hitler for talking about raising taxes on business. Mr Schwarzman later apologised.
On Monday, Mr Obama will resume political business as usual with China and other countries at the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands. He is due to visit allies in Japan, South Korea and Malaysia next month.