Glamorous singer Peng Liyuan reshapes role of China’s first lady

Guest post by Michael Cole

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When asked, “Who is Xi Jinping?” a Beijing wit might respond, “He is Peng Liyuan’s husband.”

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Xi’s long slog to the top post in China’s Communist Party (中国共产党) was achieved by quiet service and loyalty to the right power players. It was a predictable course pursued by many ambitious scions of powerful Chinese families, with one surprising difference: Xi is married to Peng, one of China’s favorite superstar singers.

In March, amid military pageantry at Tiananmen Square, in the shadow of the Forbidden City’s imposing gatehouse and the famous portrait of Mao with the Mona Lisa smile, Peng Liyuan ascended to the top of the Communist Party leadership dais with her husband, the new president. Soldiers marched, generals saluted, and the sun shone on a rare blue-sky day while Peng smiled and waved. In China, as it is everywhere, a warm personality stands out and gives heart. Peng was an uncommonly elegant presence among the dowdy leadership, and everyone noticed.

In the following weeks, headlines tinged with hopefulness have chronicled President Xi Jinping’s commitment to punish corruption, maintain and control China’s economic growth, and even curb the dangerous effects of pollution. His success will take years to assess, but his tenure is already proving to be a stylish departure from his predecessor’s as he travels the world and appears on television with his wife.

During trips to Russia, Tanzania, and Congo, she has received praise for her personal style. Stepping off an airplane in Moscow in March, she wore a trim black trench coat cinched at the waist, and carried a smart leather bag, both made by the highbrow but homegrown Chinese label Exception de Mixmind. In Tanzania, she wore a chic skirt-suit in peach brocade and carried a small leather purse made in Chengdu. Appearing on television in Beijing, she wore a silk qipao, a traditional tunic dress with a high collar. Her look is both elegant and distinctly Chinese, and her manner warm but formal.

Although the wife of a Chinese president has no official position, Peng Liyuan’s popularity is making her truly China’s first lady. Her presence at public events makes her unique, as most premiers’ wives have remained conspicuously discreet. When former president Hu Jintao visited Washington, DC to attend a state dinner at the White House, his wife Liu Yongqing was notably absent, but Peng’s image makes her a potential game-changer. The New York Times compared her to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; London’s Daily Telegraph compared her popularity to the “Lady Katherine effect;” and Weibo fan groups proliferate. In the ultimate sign of China’s approval, the massive retail site Taobao – China’s eBay – is flooded with copies of her popular clothing choices.

Critically, Peng arrives on the scene at a moment when China’s Communist Party and government need a new face to show the public, despite the fact that they form a system that is adamantly, and sometimes violently, opposed to change. Chinese politicians do not like to make waves. Senior Party members’ tight-lipped discretion keeps generations of political secrets, and their unfashionable uniform of red ties and square black suits masks immense wealth. Observers speculate endlessly about rivalries within the Party, but officials are united in their mission to maintain appearances.

The Communist Party’s stale old images have little appeal in media-saturated modern China. Elderly Chinese tell folk stories of Mao’s personal warmth and penchant for wordplay, but few want another leader like him. State companies produce grand dramas about well-known revolutionaries beloved for idealism and selflessness, but the cinemas sit empty. Global news outlets have dissected the government’s trust deficit amid news of corruption and abuse, but they arguably miss the point: modern Chinese peoples’ cynicism masks their unmet need for leaders who make them proud, and who represent their best selves. China wants a hero. 

By some accounts, the Party’s image problem is rapidly becoming a legitimacy crisis. Riots break out over problems such as economic inequality, labor abuse, and pollution, but leaders lack both inclination and credibility to address the issues, and instead use violence. “Netizens” on Weibo and Renren — the Chinese Twitter and Facebook, respectively — spread news of officials’ corruption faster than government censors can ‘harmonize’ their posts. In magazines, social media, and conversation, commercialism rules and ostentation wins the day. Pop stars and athletes receive adulation while officials struggle to evade ridicule.

In a system that thrives on stability — or harmony, as the Chinese say — Peng Liyuan presents an opportunity to try a new approach. Personally, she now occupies the role of a much-loved first lady, but it’s unknown who her role models might be. Chinese and international observers are watching for signs of how she understands her role, how she intends to use their unprecedented good will, and whether her image indicates changes in how the top leadership will behave and relate to the public. 

Abroad, comparisons to Jacqueline Kennedy abound. Pictures of Peng alighting from airplanes call to mind famous images of Jackie Kennedy’s solo trips to India and France. Both are beautiful, educated women who were raised for public lives – Kennedy a debutante who studied in Paris, and Peng the daughter of an opera singer who earned China’s first master’s degree in traditional music. Both have daughters who attended Harvard.

Critically, both women came into public view in a moment when their countries were beginning periods of optimism and prosperity, and both have used fashion to make a statement while saying little. Following her husband’s inauguration in 1961, Jacqueline Kennedy arrived at the White House intent on using her role to promote projects such as historic preservation and cultural exchange. Peng has been a World Health Organization Goodwill Ambassador for Tuberculosis and AIDS since 2011, and has long been a leader in the revival of Chinese folk music, traveling to North America to perform just four days after her wedding to Xi in 1987.

Peng Liyuan is nobody’s ingénue. She has been a senior Communist Party member for more than two decades. Having joined the regular People’s Liberation Army as a soldier at 18, she now holds the civilian rank of a major general. As a popular performer, she sings nationalistic ballads with full orchestras for television audiences of tens of millions. In 2007, she performed an ode to the Chinese army that invaded Tibet, wearing a ball gown while women in traditional Tibetan dresses danced and sang along. (Imagine if Barbara Streisand were an officer in the US Army Cavalry, and then became First Lady, having been photographed in Native American garb). She performed for soldiers on the front during the Sino-Vietnamese conflicts, and again in 1989 for armed soldiers occupying Tiananmen Square. Her songs emanate from the kitchens of village restaurants across China, where grandparents remember simpler days before Deng’s reforms, Starbucks, and Taiwanese pop.

If Jacqueline Kennedy offers a foreign model of openness and glamour for China’s first lady, then her predecessor, Jiang Qing, offers one of political savvy, as well as a warning. Jiang, known as Madame Mao, was an actress in glamorous 1930s Shanghai. Like Peng, she was beautiful, successful, and discovered politics at a young age. In her green uniform and red-starred cap, Madame Mao could be a model for Peng Liyuan’s bombastic stage performances of communist revolutionary songs.

As Mao Zedong’s closest confidant, one of the ‘Gang of Four’ who orchestrated his Cultural Revolution, and a feared enforcer of Maoist orthodoxy, Jiang was formidable in her own right. Following her husband’s death, the ‘Gang of Four’ faced trial for political crimes. As her marriage to the Chairman gave her uncommon credibility among revolutionaries, Jiang was singled out and imprisoned for life. In a system with no role for a first lady except silence, and in which the emotional pull of the revolution is both compulsory and volatile, Madame Mao paid a price for ambition.

In these early days of Xi’s first five-year term, Peng Liyuan has an opportunity to be a transformational figure. Her social capital in China is a currency that will buy opportunities to communicate, adopt causes, and amass goodwill. Where there is mistrust domestically, she can build rapport. Where China is unknown abroad, she can define it. While she does not have the power to deliver justice or make policy, she can focus the Chinese and foreign discourses as she and the Party wish. For example, by continuing to wear Chinese luxury labels, she can call attention to China as a design center rather than as the world’s workshop. By speaking publicly in her role as a WHO Goodwill Ambassador, she can break down stigma that surround HIV and reproductive health in China. Even her decisions to appear in public or not, and with whom, might incentivize officials to become known for good works and avoid scandal, slowly earning back the public trust.

Alternatively, she might redouble her efforts as a cultural figure, not by encouraging exchange or experimentation, but by returning to her roots in traditional and revolutionary genres. To the Chinese government’s great frustration, state-supported production companies cannot compete with the cultural power of Taiwanese and Korean pop culture. After a period of liberalization, the lists of banned foreign songs have grown in recent years. Rules governing which foreign films may be shown in mainland cinemas have been tightened, and the budgets for state-supported productions have grown. If Peng is inclined to use her fame and position to tilt the balance in favor of homegrown entertainment – complete with a hard-line communist message – then her tenure will assume a different tone.  The Chinese public will either go along, ignore it, or grow ever more resentful.

If Peng’s past is an indicator, she will not make waves. Even her popularity as first lady may be unintentional: She’s beautiful by nature, chic by habit, and by her own admission, is a natural performer. As they have in her first month, people will read into her attire and presence what they are inclined to. At a moment when the Chinese public is desperate for a public figure to reassure them at home and represent them well abroad, she will do neither, but she will do so with style.

Michael Cole is a foreign trade regulation compliance official who’s recently lived in both Washington, DC and Shanghai, PRC.

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