A Visible First Lady for China

China’s new First Lady is drawing international attention by appearing in public with her husband

By Maureen Lu, staff writer

Photo courtesy of 星心点灯

Photo courtesy of 星心点灯

First Lady Peng Liyuan made international headlines when her debut trip with her husband, the new Chinese President Xi Jinping, attracted attention from both the political and the fashion worlds. As more of her background comes to light, so do questions about the Chinese government’s involvement in her exposure and how much more of her the world will get to see.

A picture of Peng’s first public appearance, stepping off the plane with her husband at the Moscow airport in March, swept the Internet. She was complimented when the press found out that the clothes and handbags she was wearing were domestic fashion brands and copies of her overcoat, handbag, scarf and shoes appeared immediately in online stores.

In the past, high-profile political spouses in China have primarily chosen to stay behind the scenes, especially after Chairman Mao’s fourth wife Jiang Qing used her position as First Lady to further her political power during the Cultural Revolution before her arrest and imprisonment in the 1970s.

The publicized story of Peng’s background looks like a Princess Diana-style fairy tale. In contrast to her well-born husband, the son of the former vice premier of China, Peng was born and raised in a small city in Shandong Province. After graduating from university, she joined the arts troupe of the People’s Liberation Army as a soprano and started a career as a military singer. She became famous in China long before she married Xi. “An entire generation has grown up with her,” said James Chau, one of the few journalists who have interviewed Peng.

Questions have been raised as to how perfect Peng’s background seems and if it that image is being controlled by the Communist Party, while some believe it would be wise for them to use her to their advantage. “If people see that Xi has such a beautiful wife, it would make the (communist) party seem more human and less robotic,” Lin Yinhe, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the New York Times. Human rights campaigners have said that it doesn’t matter what makeover the Communist party is trying to pull off with its new First Lady, “this is the same party.”

A Hong Kong magazine recently published a photo of Peng singing for a troop of rifle-holding soldiers in Tiananmen Square on Chinese People’s Liberation Army Day, right after the crackdown on pro-democracy students in 1989. It was met with criticism from Chinese liberals and considered a contrast to Peng’s wholesome image at the president’s side.

The Chinese media remains excited about Peng, yet censors have erased her name from social media sites. The copies of her clothes from her first appearance have since been removed from web sales. It has been speculated that the Communist Party could be uncomfortable with her fast and unusual exposure. As the Telegraph reported, “It is not clear whether her appearance this week is her opening, or final act.”

Maureen Lu is a junior journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. She left China in 2011 and is currently in the Master of Global Media Communications program at the University of Melbourne.


Charm offensive: Peng Liyuan, China’s glamorous new First Lady, Jaime A. FlorCruz

China’s first lady Peng Liyuan: a perfectly scripted life, by Malcolm Moore

Is this the new China? First lady Peng Liyuan sang for troops after Tiananmen Square massacre, Clifford Coonan

Photo courtesy of 星心点灯

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