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China's incoming first lady a challenge for the image makers

Peng Liyuan, wife of soon-to-be President Xi Jinping, is already famous and popular. How the Communist Party handles her may be a clue to its willingness to modernize.

October 21, 2012|By Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times
  • Peng Liyuan sings during a national gala honoring the Chinese army in 2007. Her husband, Xi Jinping, is soon to become president of China.
Peng Liyuan sings during a national gala honoring the Chinese army in 2007.… (Feng Li / Getty Images )

BEIJING — She has a resume that would make U.S. political consultants drool: A renowned soprano who's performed for troops serving the motherland, opera fans at Lincoln Center and ordinary Chinese watching annual TV variety galas, she's also a World Health Organization goodwill ambassador in the fight against tuberculosis and HIV.

She's volunteered to help earthquake victims and hobnobbed with Bill Gates at an anti-smoking event in Beijing. An "artist-soldier" in the army, she holds a civilian rank equivalent to major general, and sometimes belts out patriotic melodies in military skirt suits (some favorite tunes: "On the Plains of Hope" and "People From Our Village").

And the 49-year-old with the approachable good looks has the Tiger Mom base covered too: Her daughter is studying at Harvard.

As China counts down to its carefully scripted 18th Communist Party congress next month, everyone here knows the country will soon get a new president, and who it will be. (Spoiler alert: His name is Xi Jinping.)

But there is suspense over one element of the transition: Will the nation get a full-fledged first lady as well in the form of Peng Liyuan?

The spouses of China's senior leaders have kept a low profile in the decades since Mao Tse-tung's power-hungry wife, reviled in the official press as the "White-Boned Demon," shot to infamy as a member of the Gang of Four. Madame Mao received a suspended death sentence on charges that included counter-revolution, and later committed suicide.

After the low-key Xi was tapped as Hu Jintao's heir apparent in 2007, many observers predicted that Peng would be a cosmopolitan, Western-style first lady embodying a more open, modern China.

Yet crafting a public role for Peng will require Communist Party image makers to delicately navigate millenniums-old suspicion of women near the center of power in China, the party's own squeamishness about making officials' private lives public, and a gossipy media culture increasingly critical of elites' lifestyles and behavior.

"In China, there's still this strain of thought, particularly in the countryside, that there are two possible roles for a female: the woman is either servile … or an empress type," said Ross Terrill, who wrote biographies of Mao and his wife, Jiang Qing. "There's still a feeling that women can lead men astray, especially in affairs of the state."

The woman-as-evil-schemer archetype got some recent reinforcement when one of Xi's rivals for the top party job, Bo Xilai, was ousted from the Politburo amid a scandal involving his wife, a prominent lawyer named Gu Kailai, who was convicted of murdering a British businessman.

The popular Peng could be a real asset for Xi, Terrill said. But "if the party suddenly appeared to be putting her in a box, saying no to her career, then that could trigger annoyance in the public," he said. "It could be a test of how modernized they are."

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The Oct. 1 issue of the glossy celebrity magazine OK China featured a seven-page spread on the famous politician and his wife: photos of her "flawless wardrobe," details about their date nights, even a copy of their marriage certificate. But the pair wasn't Xi and Peng: It was the Obamas.

OK China's editor in chief, Feng Chuxuan, said that since May, the magazine has also printed articles on the Kennedy family women, former French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, Kate Middleton and Princess Diana — all in response to reader requests.

But OK China has no plans to write about Peng, he said. "Readers don't ask us to publish stories about Chinese leaders' wives … because they know there are no [approved] channels for such stories," he said. "We know we cannot touch such stories."

Although former and current top officials appear in public regularly with their wives, the women are mostly quiet bystanders. On the rare occasions when a leader's wife has made a media splash, it hasn't always been a positive one.

Peng seems to have avoided some common celebrity pitfalls, like tax scandals, that could taint her squeaky-clean image. Though she's perfectly at ease performing in flowing ball gowns, she doesn't conspicuously wear designer clothing or accessories offstage, which eagle-eyed Internet users could pounce on as signs of out-of-touch elitism or corruption.

"In China's circle of the performing arts, it is a mission impossible to find someone more appropriate to represent the image of the Chinese women than Peng Liyuan," the Southern People Weekly magazine gushed in 2005. "She has a face like a full moon, shining eyes and white teeth, and she is upright and straightforward, frank and friendly.… She not only charms the political and official arena, but also enchants the masses."

But there's clearly sensitivity: Peng's name is blocked on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, and searches for her on China's censored Internet turn up limited results.

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