BEIJING (AP) — Glamorous new first lady Peng Liyuan has emerged as Chinese diplomacy’s latest star, cutting a very different profile from her staid predecessors on her debut official visit abroad to Russia.
A well-known performer on state television, Peng featured prominently in Sunday’s state media coverage of husband and President Xi Jinping’s activities in Moscow, Xi’s first state visit since assuming the presidency earlier this month.
Peng watched song and dance routines at a performing arts school on Saturday, but did not join in as some media reports had suggested she might. Xi’s trip continues this week with stops in Tanzania, South Africa and Congo, during which Peng is expected to hold other public events.
Chinese newspapers on Saturday ran images of Xi and Peng descending arm-in-arm from their aircraft after arriving in Moscow on Friday, and state broadcaster CCTV ran a report on its main Sunday news broadcast about her visit to the school.
The popular Beijing News tabloid ran a full page of items on Peng’s appearances on Sunday, alongside a photo of her arriving at a speech Xi gave Saturday dressed in an elegant Chinese-style silk tunic and skirt.
“In her role as first lady on this visit abroad, Peng Liyuan is exhibiting China’s soft power,” the paper quoted Wang Fan, head the Institute of International Relations at China Foreign Affairs University, as saying.
“As a singer and artist and a long-term advocate for poverty relief and other causes, Peng has an excellent public image,” Wang said.
Much of the coverage focused on her personal style, with a report on the mass-market sina.com website noting with satisfaction that the black leather clutch she paired with the outfit was made to order by a Chinese firm in the southwestern city of Chengdu, a flattering contrast with prominent Chinese female politicians scorned publicly for appearing decked head to toe in foreign designer brands.
“In practical terms, this is an important show of support for China’s domestic industries, but in the larger sense, it should raise national self-respect and confidence,” read a posting on China’s popular Weibo microblogging service left by Lin Zhibo, Gansu provincial bureau chief of the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, People’s Daily.
The wives of China’s top officials have traditionally been mostly invisible at home and attracted little attention while accompanying their husbands on state visits abroad. And the contrast is even sharper in the case of Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, who was widely hated and later imprisoned for her role as leader of the radical Gang of Four that mercilessly persecuted political opponents during the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
More recently, former Premier Wen Jiabao’s wife, Zhang Peili, became known for her role in the country’s gem trade and was never seen in public with her husband.
Peng, 50, is famed for her CCTV performances and serves as an ambassador for the World Health Organization, but largely retired from public life after Xi was made China’s leader-in-waiting in 2007. While sometimes described as a folk singer, she holds the rank of major general in the People’s Liberation Army and is best known for her stirring renditions of patriotic odes, often while wearing full dress uniform.
Peng and Xi have one daughter, a student at Harvard who remains out of the limelight.
Peng works on tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS outreach for the WHO. She made headlines last year by appearing alongside Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates as part of a campaign to discourage smoking, a high-profile cause in a country where about two-thirds of men smoke.