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June 6th, 2013
06:35 PM ET

Diplomatic snub? First lady skipping China summit

High school reunions, work Christmas parties, brunch with the in-laws, there are a lot of events spouses are obligated to attend. But apparently meetings with the President of China is not one of them for first lady Michelle Obama.

President Barack Obama travels to California for a sit-down with his new counterpart President Xi Jinping this weekend, and he will be going stag.

A Chinese state visit is usually filled with pomp and circumstance. But when Obama travels to California this weekend to meet with Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, the setting will be casual.

The meeting is billed as a sign of progress for American and Chinese diplomacy, with two world leaders rolling up their sleeves and building a personal relationship.

Like Michelle Obama, Peng Liyuan is considered a rock star in China. Except Peng actually is a rock star, sort of.

Peng is a popular soprano, widely known in China for her soaring, glass-breaking voice and patriotic folk songs. Her top hits include "People from Our Village" and "On the Plains of Hope."

But she won't be serenading Mrs. Obama. As the president is going it alone, there will be no face time for the first ladies.

It's a curious turn. First ladies entertaining first ladies is customary for many major state visits.

There are mixed reactions on Chinese social media about Mrs. Obama's decision to stay home. Some social media users asked if the American first lady felt threatened by Peng, while others supported Michelle Obama for putting family first.

"Because our first lady is so pretty that she was scared to show up?" posted one user on China's version of Twitter. "Why disappointed? It is for sure and understandable that she put family and her kids in the first place," said another.

Still, critics say it is a mistake for the White House as it tries to thaw tensions with the Chinese.

"All of a sudden they heard the first lady of the United States will be absent, so that itself, certainly give kind of message which may make Chinese people wonder whether this [is] kind of a political gesture from the U.S., or this is part of disrespect," Cheng Li studies U.S.-China relations for the Brookings Institution. "People in China will this this may not just be a family matter."

It would be appropriate for Mrs. Obama to call Peng Liyuan to express her welcome, and apologize for her absence, said Cheng.

The White House says the first lady is staying home to tend to her job as mom-in-chief. Sasha Obama's 12th birthday is Monday.

"When the meeting was scheduled, the Chinese government inquired about Mrs. Obama's plans and fully understood that she was not available to travel to California," a White House official told CNN on background.

"Our Chinese counterparts have not raised the question with us since then, and there have been no complaints or concerns expressed to us by our Chinese counterparts. They have told us they are very satisfied with the arrangements for these meetings," said the official.

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