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Updated: November 8, 2010 16:52 IST

China's future first lady already a big star

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In this photo taken on April 10, 2007 and made available on November 2, 2010, Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping performs in Luoyang in central China's Henan province. File: AP.
In this photo taken on April 10, 2007 and made available on November 2, 2010, Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping performs in Luoyang in central China's Henan province. File: AP.

She’s a glamorous singer with big hair, beloved by millions, and a major general in the People’s Liberation Army to boot. He’s a stiff policymaker, a suit with the public persona of most Chinese leaders.

Vice President Xi Jinping is in line to take the country’s top post in two years, setting up an unusual scenario. In a system where leaders’ families are kept almost invisible, how will the ruling party handle a first lady who’s arguably more famous than her husband?

Interest in the couple was renewed last month after Mr. Xi was appointed to a committee overseeing the Chinese military, boosting the likelihood he will lead the Communist Party in 2012.

In a world where first ladies from France’s Carla Bruni to America’s Michelle Obama routinely grab media attention, Liu Yongqing, the wife of Chinese President Hu Jintao, is rarely seen except during state visits with the spouses of foreign leaders.

The almost absent Chinese first lady reflects in part the preference of the leadership for running the rising global power at an impersonal distance.

“On the one hand they have been talking about governance with a human touch and given that (Peng’s) image is positive, what’s the point of trying to eliminate it?” said Dali Yang, a China expert at the University of Chicago. “It’s only making it more mysterious.”

By all public accounts, the 47—year—old Peng Liyuan’s image is clean.

Many Chinese can recall her almost yearly appearances on state television’s Spring Festival Gala, which draws 800 million viewers, beginning with the inaugural 1982 program. On fog—filled stages dressed in pouffy evening gowns, Ms. Peng performed rousing patriotic songs such as “On the Plains of Hope.”

Having a first lady who’s well—known in her own right would be a point of pride for many Chinese.

“For him to be in his position and be able to handle the pressure of being with a famous woman, I think that says a lot about him,” said Xu, a 26—year—old real estate consultant taking a cigarette break outside his office in Beijing. He would only give his surname, saying he did not want to be quoted.

“It’s really no big deal but maybe the high—level officials are extra sensitive,” he said. “Our county’s leaders have an air of mystery. That’s how the system works. Besides their official bio, everything else is blank.”

Mr. Xi, who at 57 is a decade older, is said to have been introduced to Ms. Peng by a mutual friend in 1986 when he was a vice mayor in the booming coastal city of Xiamen. They have been married for 23 years and have a teenage daughter.

Mr. Xi charmed her, talking about music theory, a newspaper article said. “Peng said, ‘At that time, I was very moved. Isn’t this the one I’ve been looking for? He’s unsophisticated but he’s really intelligent.’”

That article was widely reprinted in whole or part, even by the official Xinhua News Agency and the Communist Party’s People Daily newspaper.

In a 2001 article, Ms. Peng said she felt fortunate for having an understanding husband.

“As a government official he’s very busy, when I visit him in Fuzhou, he has to delay meetings or trips to the countryside in order to find time to spend with me,” the Shanghai Morning Post quoted her as saying. “Every time I go, we’ll try our best to avoid quarrels and enjoy those hard—earned days.”

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