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Updated: March 24, 2013 00:35 IST

China’s 'First Lady' presents 'softer side' of leadership?

Ananth Krishnan
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Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping
performs in Luoyang in central China's Henan
province in this April 10, 2007 photo.
AP
Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping performs in Luoyang in central China's Henan province in this April 10, 2007 photo.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is facing an unexpected problem on his highly-anticipated first trip overseas.

Despite the best efforts of State-run media outlets, China’s new leader, who touched down in Moscow on Friday, is in the unusual situation of not being the centre of attention on his State visit to Russia.

In recent days, news of Mr. Xi’s trip in China has been dominated not by the speeches given by the Communist Party’s leader on his first State visit, but by his glamorous wife, the folk singer Peng Liyuan.

Ms. Peng’s first public appearance as “First Lady” on Friday, when she stepped out of the Air China aircraft by the side of her husband, has generated huge interest among Chinese Internet users.

Part of the reason for the interest is that the glamorous Ms. Peng is a well-known face in China. As the country’s leading folk singer, she was far more famous than her husband until he shot up the party ranks in the past decade. She has recently adopted a lower profile and stopped giving concerts after her husband was appointed to the party’s elite Politburo Standing Committee.

The other factor is that the Chinese government is, for the first time, according Ms. Peng the official status of “First Lady” – an idea eschewed by earlier leaders like Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, whose wives rarely appeared in public.

For the first time, the wife of a Chinese leader will have a separate schedule and her own public engagements on an overseas visit, Vice-Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping told reporters earlier in the week. Ms. Peng will accompany Mr. Xi to South Africa for the BRICS Summit following the Russia visit, and is expected to deliver a speech.

The move is being seen by analysts in China as an attempt to present a softer, more human face of the leadership overseas. For China’s “netizens”, it has given them a rare opportunity to peek into the highly-secretive lives of their leaders.

“We finally have a presentable First Lady for the first time since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China [in 1949],” a blogger on the Tencent microblog was quoted as saying by the South China Morning Post.

With Ms. Peng’s elegant appearance generating thousands of comments, online companies, within hours, starting placing advertisements for her coat and handbag, which observant Internet users noted were not luxury brands. One Internet company was selling a copy of Ms. Peng’s coat for 499 Yuan (around Rs. 4,500), the SCMP reported

The wives of China’s leaders have been largely anonymous since the days of Mao Zedong, when the Great Helmsman’s wife Jiang Qing, later jailed for her role in the Cultural Revolution, was widely disliked.

While Jiang Qing’s legacy is one reason, another is the Chinese government’s policy to restrict any public information about the families of leaders. Chinese websites carry no information about Hu Jintao’s wife, Liu Yongqing. Searches for former Premier Wen Jiabao’s wife, Zhang Beili, are also restricted on some social media websites, particularly after reports in the overseas media detailed Ms. Zhang’s lucrative jewellery business and the vast wealth accumulated by her family.

That Ms. Peng is a public figure in her own right has allowed her to enjoy a higher profile. She is also a WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

An official biography notes how Ms. Peng and Mr. Xi “were often separated due to work” but “they have understood and supported each other and continuously shown concern for each other”. “As a member of the People's Liberation Army, Peng was often tasked with staging performances in remote areas. These tours sometimes kept her on the road for two to three months at a time. Being concerned about his wife, Xi would phone her before bedtime almost every night, no matter how late it was,” said the biography, which was circulated by official media outlets and is unusual in its level of detail – at least relative to China’s other leaders – about their personal lives.

“On Chinese Lunar New Year's Eve, Peng would often perform in the Spring Festival Gala presented by the China Central Television. Xi would make dumplings while watching the show and would wait for her return to begin cooking the family feast,” it said. In another interview, Ms. Peng even confided she was unimpressed with the “rustic” Mr. Xi when they first met – he was, at the time, serving in the provinces.

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