Soft power

China’s first lady impresses with fluent English speech

Peng Liyuan

Before Chinese leader Xi Jinping assumed power in late 2012 his singer wife Peng Liyuan was arguably better known than he was.

Many asked at the time: would China finally get a US-style ‘first lady’?

In the three years since then Peng has frequently appeared in public and become something of an ambassador for Chinese fashion brands. She also hosted America’s first lady when Michelle Obama visited China with her daughters.

During foreign trips Peng has largely left her husband to claim the political limelight. But the couple’s recent visit to the US called for a slightly different approach, one which saw Peng play a more central role. It has gone down incredibly well with the Chinese public.

“Peng is the best diplomat our country has, she is clever, confident, beautiful and kind. I am proud she is our first lady,” wrote one weibo user. “Xi Dada [Xi’s nickname] is so lucky to have a wife like Peng. Together they are so great,” wrote another.

The low profile of former Chinese first ladies is, in part, said to have come about in reaction to Jiang Qing, an actress who became Mao’s fourth spouse and was a key instigator of the Cultural Revolution.

Prior to Jiang, Chiang Kai-shek’s wife, Soong Mei-ling, had played an active role in national politics. Soong even appeared on TIME magazine’s cover (twice) and made an address – in fluent English – to the US Congress in 1943 to lobby for China’s war effort.

As wrote this week: “Peng has now changed the international impression that Chinese first ladies are always quiet, unknown. She projected an image of national confidence and has shown the world the grace and talent of modern Chinese women.”

Sohu seconded that by saying; “Peng is the only first lady of her kind in recent years… We are proud she represents us.”

So what is it that Peng did to cause all this excitement?

In reality not all that much – and according to some reports, way less then she was scheduled to do.

During the couple’s first stop in Seattle she played a very low key role and apparently turned down a separate programme that included trips to a school and an art centre lest it should divert focus from her husband’s meetings with tech and industry leaders. In Washington she attended a panda naming ceremony with Michelle Obama, as well as the state banquet alongside her husband.

But in New York during the third leg of their trip, she delivered a short speech – like Soong in fluent English – at the United Nations.

“Education is very close to my heart,” she said in the speech, which was on the importance of schooling for girls. “After generations of hard work China has come a long way in education. I myself am a beneficiary of that progress. Otherwise I would never have become a soprano or a professor of music,” she added.

Delivering the speech in English came as a major surprise – and was evidently designed to win over her American hosts. Back home it led netizens to litter social media with “clapping hands” emoticons.

There was much positive feedback. “Our first lady’s style equals great-nation power,” wrote one netizen and in the words of another “If our first lady is so elegant and intellectual, it is hard for our country to not get stronger”. (To be fair, not all of the comments were flattering – quite a few critiqued the standard of her English. The bigger surprise was that these more negative remarks weren’t deleted by the censors.)

This generation of Chinese leaders look to be more willing to let their wives become part of the nation’s charm offensive. Cheng Hong, the wife of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, has also attracted the media spotlight during her recent foreign tours (see WiC237). In fact, she has even stronger language skills – the Peking University graduate has worked as a professor in foreign languages for 30 years. Beijing News calls it the new politics of the first ladies, arguing that it helps to raise China’s soft power.

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