(CNSNews.com) - First lady Michelle Obama "has been looking for an opportunity to go to China," a White House official said on Monday. And she considers it a "real treat" to take her daughters and her mother with her -- a trip she's making at considerable expense to taxpayers, although the White House refused to give a dollar figure.
"You know, the first lady has talked about the importance of young people here in the United States learning about other cultures. She believes that about her own children, and has seen this as a really unique opportunity to share a very different part of the world with her two daughters and with her mother as well," Mrs. Obama's Chief of Staff Tina Tchen told a conference call on Monday.
"I think, as she said before, before they came here to the White House, Mrs. Robinson had not done any travel internationally, so the opportunities when she's been able to do that have been a real treat, I think, for Mrs. Robinson, for the first lady, for her daughters as well to travel together and to see these places and experience them together."
Tchen -- speaking as a Chinese American -- said the Obamas "understand the significance...of three generations of family traveling together, which I think the Chinese will appreciate, and will appreciate the ties and the bonds that the Obama family have with one another across generations. And this is a great opportunity for the Obama family to experience that, and I think for the Chinese to see that as well in an American family."
Asked how much the trip will cost, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes replied, "As a general matter, we don't disclose the details associated with the security of either the president or the first lady. This question comes up on many trips. What I would say is that determinations about the protection of the President and first lady are made by the Secret Service. We don't interfere in those decisions at all, nor do we publicize the details of that information."
Asked if the Obamas will reimburse the U.S. government for the cost of the children and grandmother, Tchen also refused to answer: "We are not discussing or disclosing information regarding the details or the logistics of the trip."
As CNSNews.com previously reported, travel by an American first lady typically includes the military passenger jet that carries her and the children, Secret Service personnel to provide security, and a separate cargo plane to haul official vehicles.
Mrs. Obama and her family leave Washington on Wednesday, flying first to Beijing, where they'll visit China's first lady. Then it's on to Xi'an, where the famous terra cotta warriors are located; and finally to Chengdu in Sichuan province, where Mrs. Obama will speak to high school students.
"And she'll be able to share her experience with Americans," Tchen said, noting that PBS and its "network of millions of teachers and students" will be following the the Obamas' trip: "And the first lady will be posting blogs and travel information for each step of the trip along the way on whitehouse.gov. And we encourage young people and all Americans to follow along and learn more about China through the first lady's trip."
The White House briefers said it's up to President Obama -- not Mrs. Obama -- to raise human rights and other concerns with the Chinese government.
"We don't think that the first lady should make this a focus at all of her trip," Rhodes said. "This is a very different purpose. This is the purpose, again, of building those people-to-people connections; of reaching out to young people in China, broadening the ties between our two countries. So we'll continue to raise those issues in all of our diplomatic contacts with the Chinese. I think the first lady's message and I think her -- the nature of her visit is quite different."
Rhodes told the conference call that Mrs. Obama's visit to China will "focus on people-to-people relations" as well as education and "youth empowerment."
He noted that Mrs. Obama had planned the trip long before the Dalai Lama visited President Obama at the White House, so her trip was not planned to soften China's anger over that event. "This type of visit takes a long time to plan, and I think the First Lady has been looking for an opportunity to go to China," Rhodes said.
The Associated Press released the following itinerary for Mrs. Obama's trip:
THURSDAY, March 20: Arrives Beijing.
FRIDAY: Joins first lady Peng Liyuan at Beijing Normal School; visits Forbidden City; meets with Peng and joins her for dinner and performance.
SATURDAY: Addresses students at Stanford Center at Peking University; participates in virtual discussion with American youth; visits Summer Palace; meets with staff and families of U.S. Embassy.
SUNDAY: Hosts roundtable on education; visits Great Wall.
MONDAY, March 24: Arrives Xi'an, visits Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an City Wall.
TUESDAY, March 25: Visits Chengdu No. 7 High School; meets with staff and families of U.S. Consulate.
WEDNESDAY, March 25: Visits Chengdu Panda Base; has lunch at a Tibetan restaurant.