Image: First Lady Michelle Obama and Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping
Andy Wong / AFP - Getty Images

TODAY   |  March 21, 2014

Michelle Obama focuses on education in China visit

During her week-long tour of China, the first lady is focusing on education, visiting a high school in Beijing this morning. Some wonder if there’s a bigger diplomatic message behind her trip. NBC White House correspondent Peter Alexander reports.

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>> michelle obama 's week long tour of china . focusing a lot of time on education there. she visited a high school in beijing just this morning. but is there a bigger diplomatic message behind her trip? nbc's white house correspondent peter alexander has more on that part of the story. good morning.

>> good morning. president obama and china 's president are going to meet in europe early next week. the first lady is going to leave the heavy lifting on divisive issues on them. this trip is focused on building good will. white house aides are confident that the first lady's personal story will also resinate with the chinese people .

>> reporter: they make an impressive pair. first lady michelle obama and her host, madame pang. a celebrated folk singer and fashion icon at home. it's a highly anticipated visit to a country whose relationship with the u.s. is complicated at best.

>> the message of this trip is really that the relationship between the united states and china isn't just between leaders, it's also between people.

>> three generations, the subtle gesture to the importance of family in traditional chinese culture . the obama girls who have traveled to the uk and south africa may take particular interest in this trip. especially 12-year-old sasha who took mandarin classes and even tried out a few words on china 's past president during a state visit . on tap, three stops, first, beijing touring the great wall in the forbidden city , then a trip to xian, finally chengdu and the famed pandas. the white house insists this week long visit is designed to emphasize cultural ties and education, intentionally steering clear of controversial topics that past first ladies including hillary clinton addressed head on.

>> it is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights .

>> reporter: laura bush accused china of not doing enough -- anita mcbride says mrs. obama has chosen to leave politics to the president.

>> and i think people may have had an expectation that she would engage in other issues, even before this trip, to china . but she's doing exactly what she wants to do.

>> president obama 's top ambassadors embracing diplomacy with the first lady's touch.

>> reporter: and aides here say during talk at beijing university tomorrow, michelle obama will raise one topic controversial in china , that's the issue of internet freedom . critics have complained this is an expensive taxpayer funded family vacation. the white house insists, that's not the case.

>> peter alexander at the white