Pandas, Tibetan Tea and Minced Yak: Michelle Obama’s Last Leg in China

Photograph by Petar Kujundzic-Pool/Getty Images

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama watches as her mother Marian Robinson feeds apples to giant pandas during their visit at Giant Panda Research Base on March 26, 2014 in Chengdu, Sichuan province, China.

Michelle Obama’s final day in China was reserved for the cute.

At the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, the first lady, her daughters and her mother got a close look at Chengdu’s famed pandas, who are nothing if not cute.

And later, when the first lady lunched at a Tibetan restaurant, U.S. officials offered an explanation for choosing an eatery with unmistakable political overtones that was equally cute.

First, the pandas.

The first lady’s party arrived at the pandas’  outdoor enclosure after being driven along a manicured garden path framed by a canopy of bamboo trees. Zhang Zhihe, the facility’s director, answered the Obamas’ questions while Lili, a 22-year-old animal, her daughter Oreo and three others lolled about, munching bamboo shoots.

The pandas seemed unfazed by the official entourage, perhaps because the press corps — at least for the duration of the visit — observed the posted admonition that visitors “advocate a happy and healthy way of life, resist superstition, avoid pornography, gambling and drugs.”

After leaving the panda base, the first lady stopped at the Zangxiang Teahouse Tibetan restaurant.

Tibet, of course, is a part of China known for separatist protests that include the self-immolation of more than 100 individuals in the past five years, according to the International Campaign for Tibet, a human rights group. When President Barack Obama met recently in Washington with the exiled Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Chinese government vigorously objected.

So stopping at a Tibetan restaurant to tap 11 Tibetan prayer wheels and receive a ceremonial white silk Tibetan scarf seemed motivated by something more than a craving for yak meat.

Pressed on the move, the first lady’s staff blandly described the luncheon as consistent with Obama’s “interest in the rights of minorities in China,” according to the White House pool reporter.

Perhaps minced yak is better than people say.

— David Lynch reported from Chengdu.

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