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Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan’s charm offensive wows the world but disguises a harsher reality, critics say

Peng Liyuan
Peng Liyuan's outfits consistently earned her praise during the state visit to Britain. Photos: Reuters

The appearances of Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan in her tailored suits and gowns left Britain’s press swooning – describing her as “graceful”, “stunning”, “sophisticated”, “glamorous” and “chic” – during President Xi Jinping’s four-day state visit to the United Kingdom last week.

The Daily Telegraph called her “a master in the art of diplomatic dressing”, describing the blue silk coat-dress she wore to the state banquet in Buckingham Palace as “the height of restrained elegance”.

The blue gown was her third outfit of the day. At the Houses of Parliament, she wore an elegant grey coat with a matching silk bow blouse. When meeting the Queen, she wore a simple white dress suit with embroidered pockets.

“Madame Peng is not just holding her own, but helping to define the new world-facing image of China,” the Telegraph said.

Peng’s carefully crafted image is a stark contrast to the wives of former Communist leaders. At the state banquet with the Queen during Hu Jintao’s visit to the UK 10 years ago, his wife wore a plain jacket and a knee-length skirt more suited for a business meeting.

READ MORE: China's first lady, Peng Liyuan, all smiles as British scientists give her a computer-designed cape

Peng, already a renowned folk singer in the mainland, initially kept a low profile as her husband took power in late 2012, but has taken on a more prominent role in recent years to help boost her husband’s image and China’s soft power abroad.

As China’s first lady, Peng’s style has made an impression. Vanity Fair listed Peng in its annual best-dressed list of 2013. Forbes last year listed Peng as the 57th most powerful woman in the world.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left), shakes hands with Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan (right) prior to her speech at the United Nations headquarters last month. Photo: AP

During the first couple’s international trips – that have included Mexico, Indonesia, Belgium, Russia, the US and UK – there was almost as much interest in Peng’s style as Xi’s agenda.

Peng, a Unesco special envoy for female education, impressed her hosts at the United Nations in New York last month with a speech in English on the importance of education for women. She is also the World Health Organisation’s goodwill ambassador for tuberculosis and HIV/Aids.

READ MORE: China's first lady Peng Liyuan impresses with fluent English speech at United Nations

Peng exudes confidence. She coached a soprano on a Chinese song during a visit to New York’s Juilliard School music academy. When she and Xi were given a tour of British creative industry in London, she, rather than he, chatted affably with the Duchess of Cambridge without the help of a translator.

Peng Liyuan (right) with the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton. Photo: AFP

Kerry Brown, a professor of Chinese Studies at King’s College, London, said Peng and Xi were now “part of the same propaganda exercise” and the use of her abroad to advance China’s soft power is “highly tactical”.

Her English ability and fashion sense were “huge assets to promote this image of a China that is modern and exciting... and presents the softer, more publicly palatable side of the Xi era,” Brown said.

Retired political scientist Joseph Cheng, formerly with the City University of Hong Kong, said Peng represented a change of generation of leaders, much like Raisa Gorbachev, wife of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s.

If you have a smiling face, people just forget about the crying faces of the people who are the victims of the crackdowns

Jean-Philippe Beja, Senior Researcher Emeritus  at CERI-Sciences-Po, Paris, said Peng's image, like Raisa's, was "trendy and pretty and it helps [promote] soft power".

But while Gorbachev’s glasnost policy led to the collapse of the Communist regime, Cheng said: “Xi Jinping remains a very authoritarian leader and is certainly not interested in political reform.”

Beja said that even so, while Xi and Peng’s images had been “smartly choreographed” to present them as modern and human, the party was at the same time stepping up its Communist Party ideological drive at home.

“It’s using modern technique to sell old ideas,” Beja said.

Peng’s graceful and glamourous image, as well as approachability and English skills, are the antithesis to the wives of former Communist leaders. Photos: Reuters

Since coming to power almost three years ago, Xi has embarked on a series of ideological campaigns to revive Mao Zedong-era Communist doctrines. He also launched the largest crackdown on dissent since the suppression on the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement 26 years ago. Hundreds of human rights lawyers, liberal academics, NGO workers, journalists and activists have been detained or jailed, while hundreds of crosses were removed from churches in a region of China that has strong Christian traditions.

Even while Xi was in the UK, the Communist party issued new rules banning its members from “vilifying party leaders” and “distorting party history.”

Analysts say it is important to remember that, beneath the glamour and the elegance, the first lady is very much at the core of the Communist establishment. Her role now and her life-long career as a military singer has been to preserve the party’s legacy and power.

Peng joined the performance troupe of the People’s Liberation Army at age 18, and was a major-general best known for her renditions of patriotic songs lauding the virtues of the military and the party. In a 2007 performance, dressed in Tibetan costume, Peng sang: “Who is going to liberate us? It’s the dear PLA, it’s the saving star of the Communist Party.”

A snapshot of the back cover of a 1989 issue of a military magazine shows a 27-year-old Peng wearing a green military uniform as she sings to the martial law troops after the military crackdown that year on pro-democracy protesters. The photograph, which emerged in China’s social media two years ago, was swiftly deleted by censors.

While Peng is now portrayed as the epitome of style and grace, the core message from China remains unchanged, Beja said.

“We are a great power, but at home, we do what we want,” Beja said.

“You wish to project that kind of message… this is a way to conceal the reality of your rule,” he said. “If you have a smiling face, people just forget about the crying faces of the people who are the victims of the crackdowns. This is good politics.”


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan’s charm offensive wows UK press but disguises a harsher reality, critics say