Wives joining leaders on overseas trips introduces China to 'lady diplomacy'

First it was the president's glamorous spouse, and now Cheng Hong has joined husband Li Keqiang on the world stage

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 May, 2014, 3:34am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 May, 2014, 3:34am

China's leaders arguably agree with late chairman Mao Zedong's famous observation that "women hold up half the sky". But the nation has rarely produced a female diplomatic leader like Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice or Hillary Rodham Clinton.

However, Beijing seems to be embracing Mao's credo by welcoming "wife diplomacy" and "first-lady diplomacy".

Peng Liyuan, the glamorous wife of President Xi Jinping, dazzled many during the couple's diplomatic tours to Europe and the United States, and during the visit of US first lady Michelle Obama in March.

Last week, the public caught a glimpse of the scholar wife of Li Keqiang, Cheng Hong, during the premier's four-nation visit to Africa. They are visiting Ethiopia, Nigeria, Angola and Kenya - key political and trade hubs.

Cheng's debut on the political scene has stirred media coverage and publicity just as intense as Peng's did.

While Peng earned praise for her elegant fashion sense and keen interest in charity campaigns, state media this time emphasised Cheng's humble personality, clean image and impressive academic achievements.

The books Cheng has authored are in high demand. "All her works caught the fancy of readers after she set off to Africa with the premier," Xinhua said.

As photographs of her mingling with African leaders appeared in newspapers and on websites, the books she has written were flying off the shelves back home.

On its official microblog, the state news agency extolled Cheng's intellect and dedication to her family. She once cared for an elderly relative stricken with cancer until the relative died.

Xinhua also talked about Cheng's more than 30-year career as an English professor at the Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing. The university's website said Cheng had been twice named among the 10 most popular teachers on the campus.

She is also known for pioneering efforts to introduce American environmental writings to China. China Daily described Cheng in a profile piece as "one of the forerunners in the Chinese study of US nature writing".

Social-media users responded to Cheng's Africa trip with approval. "Professor Cheng is a committed academic, which is rare in academic circles these days," said one. "Cheng is a model for Chinese intellectuals," wrote another.

But more media focused on her role in shaping the world's image of China's highest-profile women.

China Women News said Cheng represented the ideal virtues of a Chinese woman, while The Beijing News said her presence "is helpful in fully showing the country's national image".

The state-affiliated Global Times said Cheng had contributed to China's public diplomacy.

Hailing "wife diplomacy" and "lady diplomacy", several state-run media said Cheng's activities helped promote China's national interest.

The unveiling of Peng and Cheng is notable, as Chinese leaders' wives have usually kept a low profile. They might not play the same roles and hold the same power as Clinton and her fellow ex-secretaries of state, but both the "first lady" and "second lady" have done their part in boosting China's soft power and raising its global profile.

Zhang Ying, a researcher at Beijing Foreign Studies University, wrote on Zhongguo Jiaoyubao (China Education Post) on Friday that "lady diplomacy" was an effective way to enhance China's image and soft power. But she said there should be a system and a law to give these wives of state leaders a formal status in China's diplomacy. She said "lady diplomacy" was a new highlight for China's diplomacy effort and "it will become more active and flexible and innovative".