Peng Liyuan

China's first lady briefly steps out of the limelight

Peng Liyuan, wife of President Xi, took a back seat as her husband held talks with Obama

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 June, 2013, 3:47am

Photogenic first lady Peng Liyuan played steel drums in Trinidad, strolled hand-in-hand with a coffee farmer's daughter in Costa Rica and snapped pictures with her iPhone in the shadow of the Mayan ruins in Mexico.

But the glamorous and popular wife of President Xi Jinping stepped out of the spotlight for two days in California, while her husband held unprecedented informal talks with US President Barack Obama at a lush retreat in the desert on the last leg of a four-country trip.

Peng, an opera singer who many Chinese say was far more famous than Xi before he became a top leader, has decisively broken the mould of Chinese first wives who kept an intentionally low profile since the 1970s.

Many in China expected to see more of her in California and hoped that she would have a chance to interact with US first lady Michelle Obama, potentially adding a fresh dimension to the nascent relationship between their presidential husbands.

But Michelle Obama's decision to stay in Washington with her daughters rather than meet the Chinese first couple sidelined Peng to some extent.

US officials said it had been made clear to the Chinese side early on that a scheduling conflict would prevent Michelle Obama from attending the summit at the Sunnylands estate near Palm Springs.

But the US first lady did make a gesture. "Mrs Obama wrote a letter to Madame Peng welcoming her to the United States. The first lady said she regretted missing her this weekend, but hopes to have the chance to visit China and meet Madame Peng sometime soon," a White House official said.

Still, Michelle Obama's absence set the Chinese blogosphere and some Chinese media alight with speculation, anger, pride and more than a few jokes.

It was an "arrogant show of fear of inferiority", which caused Michelle Obama not to meet Peng, and an insult to the Chinese people, said an opinion piece in the semi-official China News Service. The article appeared to have later been removed from the website, but it was widely circulated on China's Twitter-like Sina Weibo microblog. "Even if Xi's wife doesn't care, many Chinese believe this is a show of disrespect and rudeness towards the Chinese leader," it said.

Michelle Obama has had cordial interactions with other foreign leaders' wives who have visited the White House as well as with those she has met abroad. But lacking any major diplomatic role in the administration, she has shown few signs of forging close personal bonds with her foreign counterparts.

On weibo, several commentators suggested why Michelle Obama avoided California.

"She was afraid of Mama Peng's charm. How shameful that the aura of the first lady of the world's superpower can't beat that of the first lady of developing China," wrote a user with the handle Chiki-Wang.

Another wrote: "Michelle decided to hide before being humbled. She was afraid that after dinner the two couples would sing karaoke and so she said she needed to be with her daughters - one of the most common excuses, even in China."

Peng's easy, casual and fun demeanour were on full display on the earlier leg of Xi's trip, which took in Trinidad, Costa Rica and Mexico. She has also been trying out her English, which - sources with ties to the leadership said - she has been learning.

In California, the Desert Sun, snapped photos of her visiting the Palm Springs Art Museum on Friday afternoon. Almost no other media were present.

Peng joined Obama and Xi for tea on Saturday before China's first couple left, US national security adviser Thomas Donilon said. It lasted half an hour.