18th Party Congress

A new role for China's first-lady-to-be Peng Liyuan

Singer Peng Liyuan initially stepped back from limelight but now seeks a higher profile

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 October, 2012, 7:33am

China is likely to have a more high-profile first lady and first family after Xi Jinping succeeds Hu Jintao as president in March, following his elevation to the post of Communist Party general secretary next month.

Xi's wife, folk singer Peng Liyuan , is better known than her husband to most mainlanders, but she has adopted a lower profile since he became vice-president in 2008.

Overseas media said Americans were disappointed in February when the 49-year-old soprano was not part of Xi's delegation when he visited Washington, because the outside world has long been curious about the future first lady.

Peng, a legend of contemporary Chinese folk singing since she was just 18 years old, was one of the first people on the mainland to obtain a master's degree in ethnic music and has been recognised as a "national first-degree performer".

A former soldier, she was also the youngest civilian to be given the rank of major general in the People's Liberation Army, owing to her background in the military's performing arts troupes. She is also president of the PLA political department's performing arts troupe.

Peng was a regular on China Central Television's New Year Gala from the show's inception in 1983 but has faded into the background since her husband's promotion to vice-president four years ago. The gala is the most watched TV programme on the mainland, attracting more than 700 million viewers a year.

Peng now appears to be trying to step out of Xi's shadow as she gears up for her new role, taking part in activities similar to those of first ladies in many Western countries.

In late May she promoted World No Tobacco Day with software magnate and philanthropist Bill Gates and on June 3 she was appointed a World Health Organisation goodwill ambassador in the campaign against tuberculosis and HIV.

In May 2008, after a devastating earthquake hit Sichuan , eight of the nine members of Politburo Standing Committee visited the worst-hit areas of the western province. However, Xi was not among them. He headed to less-damaged counties in neighbouring Shaanxi instead, provoking some criticism that the country's leader-in-waiting was "cold-blooded" and unwilling to face danger.

His wife, in contrast, immediately visited many stricken parts of Sichuan for special charity performances, and spoke about her family's quake-relief efforts.

She said she had donated 200,000 yuan (HK$246,000) to victims and that their only child, daughter Xi Mingze , just 16 at the time, had volunteered to work in one of the worst-hit areas for a week.

Wang Yuncheng , a former head of the publicity office in Shishi , Fujian , said that when Xi was party secretary of the provincial capital, Fuzhou , in the early 1990s, Peng's performances and speeches won a lot of applause and helped polish Xi's image.

Wang met her when she gave a charity performance in late 1992 to mark the fourth anniversary of Shishi's establishment as a city, and said she was very approachable.

"She wore no make-up when dining with us and looked like a common woman," he said. "She told us that since both she and Xi were very busy, their only daughter, who was just a few months old at the time, had been left behind with her parents."

Wang said that as a father of two, he could feel Peng's self-reproach when talking about her family life.

"Peng said it was a luxury for the couple to meet once a month when Xi was party head of Fuzhou," Wang said. "She talked to us so nicely, without any official airs. I was so proud to receive her and am so happy that we will have such a natural and graceful first lady."

Peng appears to have toned down her image in recent public appearances, often sporting a military uniform and a matronly hairdo, rather than the silk ball gowns, heavy make-up and big perms on show in her music videos and New Year Gala performances.

Professor Zhang Ming , a political scientist at Renmin University in Beijing, said Peng had helped bolster and soften Xi's public image in a country that, stimulated by social media, had become increasingly hungry for news about its leaders and their personal lives.

"I hope her outspokenness will change China's past conservative traditions, which have shaped coverage of all first families, with anything about their activities being a state secret," he said.

"In China's modern history, Soong May-ling [the wife of Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek] was the most high-profile and successful first lady. But if Peng follows her style, it might arouse controversy.

"That's because China is very different from Western countries, because Chinese are not used to idolising women, unlike the British, who adored Princess Diana. On the contrary, we even can't accept that a princess can outshine her crown prince husband."

In the past three decades or so, leaders' spouses have not played any political role at all on the mainland - a convention some analysts link to the poor reputation of Jiang Qing , the third wife of Mao Zedong , who was arrested after his death for being the ringleader of the "Gang of Four".

Liu Yongqing , Hu's wife, rarely appears and almost never speaks in public. Wang Yeping , the wife of Jiang Zemin , Hu's predecessor, was described by local and overseas media as "an invisible and silent first lady".

Peng, however, once broke the silence surrounding the family lives of China's leaders by talking about her relationship with Xi before his promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee in 2007.

"When he comes home, I've never thought that there's some leader in the house," she told the state-run Zhanjiang Evening News in Guangdong. "In my eyes, he's just my husband. When I get home, he doesn't think of me as some famous star. In his eyes, I'm simply his wife."

Zhang said that to make sure that she did not outshine her husband, Peng had tried to shift the public's focus from her well-known vocal cords to her new philanthropic career - a similar path to that trod by many first ladies in the West.

"She will stop all kinds of commercial performances and even resign as the director of the PLA arts troupe, and might perform fewer shows for charity in the future," he said.

"I think the Chinese would prefer it if Peng did not learn from Soong or US first lady Michelle Obama. In fact, it would be good enough if she just imitated Chow Mei-ching, the wife of Taiwan's leader, Ma Ying-jeou, who is well-known for her common touch."