Peng Liyuan

Fashion contest the focus of 'first lady diplomacy' during Michelle Obama's China visit

Michelle Obama and Peng Liyuan make a big impression without their powerful husbands

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 March, 2014, 10:38am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 March, 2014, 4:55am

The visit to China by Michelle Obama has thrust "first lady diplomacy" and questions about gender to the forefront of the nation's attention.

Obama yesterday wrapped up a week-long trip to China by feeding a panda before having a yak-based lunch at a Tibetan restaurant.

Comparisons between Obama and Peng Liyuan , the glamorous singer-wife of Xi Jinping , began the moment they kicked off a ceremony at a Beijing high school last Friday.

The women, both in their early 50s, had successful careers when they married men who would become two of the most powerful men in the world. Both are active in public health initiatives, and have raised daughters.

The side-by-side judging came swiftly. Thomas Ye, a widely followed blogger on fashion who posts under the name "Gogoboi", graded the attire: "Fashion contest first round: Michelle Obama's casual black waistcoat, shirt and wide-legged trousers were eclipsed by a dignified Peng, exemplified by her formal navy blue suit, decorated with a red purse. Top points to Peng," Ye wrote on Sina Weibo at the weekend.

Round two went to Obama. She "hit back" at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse on Friday night, with a striking knee-length red dress by designer Naeem Khan.

Dour state media took notice. China Daily said in a caption accompanying a photo of the two women before the dinner that they "have much in common".

"They are symbols of glamour in their own countries and stand uneclipsed by their more powerful husbands. They are loved by the public not because of their spouses but for who they are," it said. "Each woman has created a 'power centre' - a kind of soft power - from a combination of femininity and self-assertion".

While viewing a woman primarily through the lens of her family or her wardrobe would be antiquated in Europe, the mainland is still feeling its way through post-Mao gender politics.

China has resurrected the idea of "first lady diplomacy" since Xi took up the presidency in 2013 in the hope of showing a softer side as the country becomes more assertive. The last visible first lady in diplomatic scenes was Wang Guangmei, wife of Liu Shaoqi , who held the presidency in late 1950s.

The public has grown increasingly enamoured with Peng, commenting on her grace and elegance, which evolved through her time with the People's Liberation Army entertainment troop.

Da Wei, a researcher at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, said the wives of top leaders had largely been restricted to ceremonial duties and faced constrains in their comments, even about issues such as education and health.

Peng has avoided controversy while drawing attention to the risks of smoking risks and HIV/Aids prevention, in particular the care of children orphaned by the illness. Obama has initiated similar public health campaigns in the United States, with a focus on child obesity.

Jin Canrong, a professor of international studies at Renmin University, said expectations on the mainland of "first lady diplomacy" were not high, given it remained largely a Western concept.

"It has become regular practice for first ladies to be involved in diplomatic and domestic issues in Western countries, but not in China," he said. "Peng has built a positive image as first lady thanks mainly to her performing career. But this was by chance, not by design.

"Peng's involvement in such soft issues as education and youth exchanges can help build trust and understanding, but it is unlikely she will touch on any sensitive issues."

In contrast, Obama broached the issue of freedom of speech while addressing students at Peking University, and later religious freedom at a school in Chengdu in Sichuan . But she otherwise has steered clear of politics during her week-long visit, which ended yesterday.

Obama, who is travelling with her mother and daughters, yesterday visited the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Sichuan. They had lunch at a Tibetan restaurant, a choice "in accordance with [Obama's] interest in the rights of minorities in China", according to White House staff. The dishes served at the Zangxiang Teahouse featured yak soup, yak meat pies and boiled yak ribs.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse