Peng Liyuan

First lady Peng has to blaze her own trail on world stage, pundits say

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 March, 2013, 6:05am

First lady Peng Liyuan may have inspired Chinese internet users during her maiden overseas trip with President Xi Jinping, but it is too early to conclude whether she can become a diplomatic star or help foster China's soft power.

Some political observers say that when it comes to being first lady, Peng, a popular folk singer, is still learning the ropes.

"China has failed to build up a culture or even a definition for the country's first lady since the Communist Party established its regime [in 1949]," said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian.

"Peng needs to blaze a trail and find a balance between her personality and how to be a proper first lady in the Chinese communist culture. She couldn't find any examples from her predecessors."

Among China's former first ladies since 1949, only Liu Shaoqi's wife, Wang Guangmei, impressed during her overseas visits. But Mao Zedong's actress wife, Jiang Qing, was notorious for her unrealistic ambitions. Other first ladies were an enigma to the world.

"Peng couldn't find a precedent in Wang nor Jiang because the communist culture doesn't encourage officials to show their humanity. This could be seen in Xi and Peng's nervous and conservative behaviour during their Russia trip," Zhang said, adding that he was disappointed with their limited interaction in their first joint appearance in public.

In a rare move, China Central Television broadcast footage last night of Peng's visits to a school for orphans in Moscow and a prestigious Russian military troupe, the Alexandrov Ensemble. But the report did not say whether Peng sang after watching the troupe's performance, which the Russian media had speculated about.

Peng told the Russian orphans that she represented hundreds of millions of Chinese mothers in her visit.

"I don't think China has built up the so-called 'first lady diplomatic culture' as Western countries have, but at least Peng is adding some soft colour to Xi's boring presidential trip, as well as softening China's tough image," said Zhang Ming, a political science professor at Beijing's Renmin University.

However, Peng seems to have stirred little interest outside of China. There has been little coverage of her among the Western and Russian newspapers.

Some Moscow residents said yesterday that they knew nothing about Peng when the South China Morning Post asked them about their views of her.

A resident said: "I have not heard about her nor read any reports about her."

Additional reporting by Teddy Ng in Moscow