Premier Li Keqiang kicked off a week-long trip to Africa yesterday, with his wife accompanying him for the first time on a state visit since he took office last year.
Ahead of his departure, Li admitted to "growing pains" in China's relationship with Africa, but said Beijing would not pursue a colonial path as some countries had done.
Li's wife, Cheng Hong - a professor of English with a low-profile career in academia - will join the premier on his visit to Ethiopia, Nigeria, Angola and Kenya.
The wives of Chinese leaders have taken on a higher diplomatic profile under the current leadership. President Xi Jin- ping's wife, Peng Liyuan , hosted US first lady Michelle Obama when she visited China in March.
Watch: Chinese state media unveil Premier Li Keqiang's wife for first time
In contrast, former premier Wen Jiabao appeared only once at a public event with his wife, Zhang Peili , while in office - when the couple met a former Hong Kong deputy to the national legislature in 2011.
"It's a general practice in Western countries that partners of senior government officials visit a foreign country together, but it's still a rare thing here [in China]," said Wang Hongyi, a specialist on Africa with the China Institute of International Studies under the foreign ministry. "That's why Cheng's appearance has attracted so much media attention."
Wang noted that the head of the African Union Commission, Nkosazana Clarice DlaminiZuma, was a woman and said Cheng's presence might help deepen the bilateral friendship.
Li will visit the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa.
People familiar with Cheng described her as a "low-profile, humble and nice" woman. "She is very low-profile. Her style is different to Peng Liyuan," said Tuo Guozhu , a professor at the Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing, where Cheng teaches.
While Cheng is a university professor, Peng is a popular folk singer accustomed to being in the public eye. Cheng, 57, grew up in a family of intellectuals. Her father was a senior official in charge of anti-poverty efforts and her mother was a reporter with Xinhua, according to local media reports.
"Teachers and students have a very good impression of her, and some of her translation work has won high praise among professors," Tuo said. "She never talks about her husband in public and we only knew who her husband was after 2008, when Li became the vice-premier.
"She stopped appearing at the university sometime after 2008, mainly due to security reasons. But she still might coach some postgraduate students at home," Tuo added.
Li's trip comes amid heightened security concerns in Kenya and Nigeria.
Taking questions before his departure, Li brushed aside accusations China was becoming a neocolonial power in Africa.
"I wish to assure our African friends … China will never pursue a colonial path like some countries did or allow colonialism, which belonged to the past, to reappear in Africa" Li said.
Tensions over Chinese investment projects in the continent were "growing pains" that were part of developing relations, he said.
Academic Wang said: "There are truly some problems in Sino-African co-operation, but many of them have been exaggerated by Western media. China and Africa have so many fields in which to co-operate, ranging from politics and diplomacy to trade and investment.
"China will help more on development and people's livelihood in Africa," he said.