Last Thursday morning, to no one’s great surprise, Xi Jinping was confirmed as the leader of China’s Communist Party. Shortly afterwards, his promotion to head of the all-important Central Military Commission was announced too. And in March next year, Xi will become China’s president, cementing his position as one of the world’s most powerful people.
But not long ago Xi was far less well known than his wife – the celebrated folk singer Peng Liyuan.
In 2007, the year it became clear that Xi was destined for the highest of political office, a popular joke went thus: “Who is Xi Jinping? He is Peng Liyuan’s husband.”
But as Xi takes the reins of the world’s second largest economy, the next question for many of his wife’s fans is what Peng’s role will be. Will she emerge as more of a ‘First Lady’ than her predecessors or will Peng withdraw from public view and keep as low a profile as the wives of all of China’s leaders since Mao?
Recent experience suggests it may be the latter. That’s despite the fact that for the Chinese who grew up in the eighties and nineties Peng, now 50, had star power reminiscent of Jennifer Lopez today. She rose to fame in the entertainment corps of the People’s Liberation Army, belting out folk and revolutionary songs and projecting an image of China as a proud, healthy nation.
As one writer in the New Yorker magazine recalled early this year: “When I was seven and living in a state-run hospital compound, Peng, whose name means ‘Beauteous Beauty’ in Chinese, surveyed me under thick, dark lashes from countless posters and television sets.”
Peng went on to release six albums and was one of the star acts at CCTV’s New Year Gala Show – the single most watched TV programme in China – for at least 20 years.
But once it became clear her husband was headed for the top, Peng began reducing her public appearances, limiting herself to military functions and charity events.
When Peng performs now she eschews the ornate ballgowns and fabulous chignons of earlier years in favour of military uniform – albeit one that incorporates an above-the-knee skirt and some rather impractical high heels.
Government censors have also expunged many of the more glamorous images of Peng in the past – presumably to avoid any talk of privilege, frivolity and perhaps even wealth.
“Peng was admired as much for her soprano vocals as she was for the way she exercised them in shimmering chiffon gowns, with crimson-glossed lips. Recently, when I plugged Peng’s name into a Chinese search engine, the only image I could find of the country’s preeminent chanteuse was that of a poofy-haired woman in stiff military garb—more Josef Stalin than Judy Garland,” wrote the New Yorker contributor Jia Yangfan.
Other interviews with Peng over the course of her long career – she started singing professionally when she was 18 – have also disappeared from public view.
But in one interview given to the state-run Zhejiang Daily six years ago, Peng recalled her first date with Xi in 1986, when he was 32 and deputy mayor of the port city of Xiamen.
She wasn’t wholly impressed. “In our first encounter, I found his dress outmoded and severely plain, while his skin made him looked older than he really was,” said Peng somewhat dismissively. She also claims that she tested Xi’s intentions by dressing in unflattering military fatigues and inititally had no idea that he was the son of revolutionary leader Xi Zhongxun and thus a member of the Chinese political elite.
In fact, Peng says she found his background daunting but that he eventually won her over with the line: “My father is a son of peasants, he is very easygoing. The spouses of children in our family are all children of ordinary people.”
The couple were married a year later and had a daughter in 1992. Another story still allowed to do the rounds tells of early sacrifice in the marriage – with Xi not present for the birth as he was called away to deal with the aftermath of a typhoon in Fujian province.
“It made Peng sad but she understood. She could not bear the idea that through selfishness her husband would let millions of people down,” the PLA Daily noted approvingly.
Since giving up performances, Peng has focused on her work as a People’s Consultative Conference representative, as well as adopting several causes. Earlier this year she joined forces with Bill Gates to launch a national anti-smoking campaign, while she has also served as a World Health Organisation goodwill ambassador for campaigns against tuberculosis and AIDS.
Peng has been careful not to appear as too much of an activist in promoting the public health message. For instance, in the two public service ads warning against HIV in which she appeared last year, she comes across more as a soft-spoken, motherly figure who says nothing that could be considered distasteful. Amazingly, in her campaign to encourage college students to practice safe sex, she even avoids referring to the word ‘sex’. Condoms also go without mention.
“Being involved in AIDS activism is a political statement, and I imagine that the people who deal with her public image are grappling with that,” Johanna Hood, an academic who has studied Peng’s public health work told the LA Times.
Yet there’s a possibility that Peng is moving into a newly-sanctioned role in which she will assume a slightly higher profile. If so, she will have to overcome a long-held suspicion of wives and consorts close to the centre of power that dates back in modern times to Jiang Qing, Mao’s third wife, who also came from a showbusiness background. The Empress Dowager Cixi also comes in for historical criticism, for her role in the final collapse of Qing dynasty. Of course, the imprisonment of Bo Xilai’s wife Gu Kailai this year (see WiC161) has raked over old memories, rekindling the narrative of the power-hungry wife of a senior figure losing control.
“If this were the West, one would say she [Peng] has the perfect requirements for being a leader’s wife: beauty, stage presence, public approval. But things are different in China,” an anonymous academic told the Washington Post.
Li Yinhe, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, even proposed to the New York Times that Xi might employ Peng as part of China’s much-vaunted ‘soft power’ campaign to improve its reputation both at home and abroad.
“If people see that Xi has such a beautiful wife, it would make the Party seem more humane and less robotic,” she said. But almost immediately, Li seemed to rebut her own suggestion. “Obama trots out Michelle because it brings him popular support,” she said. “The Communist Party has no need for that, because when you already have all the power, what’s the point of bringing out the wife?”
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