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US First Lady Michelle Obama tours Beijing's Forbidden City

US first lady Michelle Obama (left) and Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping, pose for a photograph as they visit Forbidden City in Beijing on March 21, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
US first lady Michelle Obama (left) and Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping, pose for a photograph as they visit Forbidden City in Beijing on March 21, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (AFP) - United States First Lady Michelle Obama took her daughters and mother to Beijing's former imperial palace on Friday, on a China tour the White House emphasises will be light on politics and heavy on personal diplomacy.

Mrs Obama, her daughters Malia and Sasha, and her mother Marian Robinson were photographed along with China's own First Lady Peng Liyuan at the central pavilion of the sprawling Forbidden City, known as the Hall of Supreme Harmony.

The two women's husbands, Mr Barack Obama and Mr Xi Jinping, are expected to meet next week on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in the Netherlands.

Xi later welcomed the first lady at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse.

“I cherish my sound working relationship and personal friendship I have already established with your husband, and we stay in close touch through meetings, phone conversations and correspondence,” he said.

“I wish to thank the US side for sending such a heavyweight ambassador to China,” he added.

The visit is Mrs Obama's first to China, and her third foreign trip without the US commander-in-chief since moving into the White House.

Beijing and Washington have hailed the trip as an opportunity for both first ladies to highlight the importance of education and "people-to-people" exchange.

But critics in the US have lambasted signals that human rights are off the agenda - although Mrs Obama is scheduled to eat at a Tibetan restaurant in Chengdu - and the cost to taxpayers of the trip, which the White House has declined to reveal.

Mrs Obama, her family and Ms Peng began at the No. 2 High School Attached to Beijing Normal University.

Photos posted online by China's state-run Legal Evening News showed them observing students at the school learning how to build robots.

The group took part in a calligraphy demonstration, with Mrs Obama and her family looking on as Ms Peng wrote out: "Great virtue promotes growth", before giving it to the visitor, according the Legal Evening News.

The trip has been front-page news in China's state-run media, and several outlets have run op-eds hailing the planned focus on "soft" issues such as education rather than on political topics.

"When briefing the media about Michelle's trip, the US side said the First Lady is to steer clear of politics, human rights, trade disputes and other bilateral differences - issues better handled via official diplomacy," the official Xinhua news agency wrote in a commentary on Thursday.

"That approach is right. The uniqueness of the role of first ladies is its soft touch and freedom from the knottiness and even ugliness of hard politics."

The question of the trip's cost, however, has drawn attention on both sides of the Pacific.

Chinese social network users widely circulated a China National Radio report on the lavish 52,000 yuan (S$10,700) a night hotel suite where it said the Obama family were staying.

According to the hotel website, the suite is 320 sq m and includes a kitchen, bar, sauna, jacuzzi, dining table for six and a treadmill.

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