BEIJING — Among the superlatives and breathless praise visitors lavish on , few involve its largely forgettable food. In a tough climate, on the roof of the world, most meals consist of tsampa, a tasteless dough made from roasted barley flour.
But Michelle Obama, accompanied by her mother and daughters, did more than promote a little-known cuisine Wednesday at lunchtime with her controversial choice of a Tibetan restaurant as the final stop of the first-ever solo trip to China by an American first lady.
Simply by dining at the Zangxiang Teahouse in Chengdu, a city in southwestern China, Obama drew attention to the broader, and highly sensitive issue of Tibetan rights. During the past five years, more than 130 Tibetans have set themselves on fire, with mostly deadly results, to protest against Chinese rule.
Most of them lived in ethnically Tibetan areas of Sichuan province, of which Chengdu is the capital, and not in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) itself. About 60,000 Tibetans live in Chengdu, a city of about 7 million people, said the White House. The restaurant choice was in accordance with Obama’s interest in the rights of minorities in China, her staff said.
At the Zangxiang, Obama turned copies of metal prayer wheels, which Tibetans spin to gain wisdom and merit, and received a white ceremonial khatag scarf. Predictably heavy on yak, the large bovine that sustains Tibetan nomadic life, the menu included yak butter tea, yak soup, yak pies and boiled yak ribs, plus the ubiquitous tsampa.
Both the staff and venue offered unwitting reminders of decades of Chinese control of Tibet.
“I was so proud such a noble guest, the first lady of America, likes our Tibetan food,” said Shi Bixia, 48, the lobby manager who received the Obama party. Shi, from China’s majority Han ethnic group, was born in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, to Chinese soldiers who entered in 1950 as China’s new communist rulers occupied the region.
The state-owned restaurant, opened last year, sits inside a hotel founded in 1956 by the Chinese government of Tibet. “I have a deep feeling towards Tibet, I am half-Tibetan,” Shi said. “I like Tibetan food, especially butter tea. I am glad Michelle also likes it.”
Tibetan exiles viewed Obama’s actions with a more political slant. The visit “is a strong signal to the Chinese government without saying anything explicitly,” said Tsering Tsomo, executive director of the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, in Dharamsala, India, which is home to Tibet’s government-in-exile.
“We believe it’s a strong message that she is concerned about what is happening in Tibet. She has already spoken on this trip about rights including freedom of expression and worship. These are rights that are being restricted and violently suppressed by the Chinese government in Tibet,” said Tsering.
Through her interaction on the prayer wheels and scarf, Obama sent “implicit” messages on Tibetan religion and traditional culture to the authorities “without provoking them,” she said.
The self-immolations are mainly caused by religious repression and a desire for the return of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, said Tsering. President Obama angered China last month by meeting with the Dalai Lama for the third time during his presidency.
Chinese experts played down the impact in China of Obama’s Tibetan move.
“She wants to send a message to the U.S. public that she still remembers the Tibetan people,” said Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at People’s University of China in Beijing, and a government adviser. “There are serious disagreements on some Tibetan issues between Beijing and Washington, but Tibetan food? Maybe it’s good, She can choose any restaurant she likes. It’s not too provocative,” he said.
As with Obama’s remarks on universal rights, made earlier in her trip, China’s official media “will ignore what is not so positive,” said Shi. “The first lady has full freedom to speak about anything she wants to. It will not bring about substantial troubles for the two countries.”
The State Department, in its latest human rights report for China, said the Chinese government’s “respect for and protection of human rights in the TAR and other Tibetan areas remained poor” during 2013. The government “engaged in the severe repression of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural, and linguistic heritage by, among other means, strictly curtailing the civil rights of China’s ethnic Tibetan population, including the freedoms of speech, religion, association, assembly, and movement,” the report concluded.
Ahead of Obama’s visit, Matteo Mecacci, president of the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), welcomed her scheduled Tibetan meal as “a demonstration of the long-standing American interest in the distinct Tibetan culture.” Given her focus on education, the Washington-based group hoped she would learn about the “challenges faced by Tibetans as they try to prevent their language from becoming the secondary language of instruction in their homeland.”
On Tuesday, Obama visited an elite Chengdu high school that provides distance learning by video to schools in Tibetan areas, but likely only in Mandarin. To Chinese officials, the “bilingual education” policy relegates Tibetan to just Tibetan language class, according to ICT.
The Obama family swiftly ticked off all of China’s star sights, from Beijing’s Forbidden City and the Great Wall, to the Terracotta Warriors in the central city of Xi’an. They even met some pandas Wednesday, at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
The visit has received widespread, highly positive coverage in China, even as it competed for space with missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Many Chinese responded well to her life story, her emphasis on equality and education, interest in Chinese culture and willingness to try out traditional activities such as calligraphy and tai chi.
Obama’s visit should allow her to view China more positively and enrich her husband’s understanding of China, said Shi, the international relations expert. Given the growing U.S.-China tensions over disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea, Obama’s visit can also improve the bilateral relationship, “but it can’t be decisive, as Beijing and Washington still hold opposite positions and have a strategic rivalry,” he said. “China will not make any concessions in any substantial areas.”
Contributing: Sunny Yang