Here Comes China’s First Lady!

While Sinologists are busy trying to determine why Xi Jinping chose Russia as his first foreign visit as President of the Republic, the rest of the world – less severe but more relevant for the media –has been in a frenzy over the fashion sense of China’s new first lady. When Peng Liyuan descended the aircraft stairs in Moscow, hand in hand with her husband, commenters began asking themselves if a new character was emerging on the Chinese stage. The more frivolous speculated on her self-confident manner, her stylish trench coat, and her elegant (but unbranded) handbag. When the presidential delegation continued on to three different African states, Chinese state television did not hesitate to record images of her smiling face and elegant pant suits that modestly recalled traditional Chinese style.

Analysts both Chinese and foreign have instead noticed significant news that was barely overshadowed by the glamour. The figure of a first lady is not part of Chinese tradition, either communist or imperial. The consorts of the Chinese leadership have always been demure, faithful to their families, and a more neutral grey than even the bureaucratic tint of their husbands. They have no public function and their biographies are largely anonymous, and the exceptions to that rule have hardly been fortunate. Jiang Qing, the last wife of Mao Zedong, spent the last days of her life in prison after her line was defeated. The death of her husband and the arrest of the “Gang of Four” that she led were fatal for her political ambitions. Fate was also very harsh with Gu Kailai, Bo Xilai’s arrogant but powerful wife. A rising star in the CCP and governor of Chongqing, Bo lost his fight for the top spot in the organization and his fate is ultimately tied to its disciplinary measures. His wife was sentenced to death for the murder of an English businessman, the revelation of which exposed illicit ties with a vast and shadowy personal empire.

Xi’s wife is far from these indiscretions, instead projecting an image of stability. It works to the advantage of a less threatening soft power, because China itself needs to project a more reassuring image made up of normal, everyday events rather than economic aggression. Peng will surely be seen active with acts of charity and social and cultural causes. One is reminded immediately of Raissa Gorbachev, the unforgettable Russian first lady who lifted the international status of a Soviet Union already in decline. Peng Liyuan will also have an important place in internal politics. In a period tarnished by scandals and corruption, her familiar face offers a sense of security and an image rooted in the genuine traditional values of the country.

Peng’s story seems unimpeachable in public opinion. She comes from a humble family, different from her husband’s Red aristocracy, even though she became famous long before he did. At the age of 18 she started her career in the army, where she put her soprano voice to good use. She specialized in military songs, patriotic marches and musical folklore, and quickly gained fans and popularity. She is a legitimate TV star, even though she had to leave her career in entertainment behind when Xi was nominated vice president in 2007. Her pedigree is excellent, her debut promising, and the reception has been warm. The ingredients are valid and all there, although it still remains to be seen whether the new Chinese direction will make use of them, or reduce them to a matter of habit to be quickly left in oblivion of yesterday’s news.