China′s first lady brings fresh charm to the role | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 28.03.2013
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China's first lady brings fresh charm to the role

Everyone is talking about Peng Liyuan - the woman who accompanied the new Chinese president on his first trip to Russia and Africa, spreading her charm beyond the borders of China.

China's first lady made her debut as a singer in Moscow. Years later, on her return to the city, she presents herself at the side of the Chinese president, wearing a dark trench coat and a light blue scarf and carrying a sophisticated handbag.

Away from the political agenda, she is the number-one topic on the Internet. China is enchanted by her beauty, elegance, and charm. Her fans compare her to Michelle Obama or Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

Chinese people agree Peng Liyuan can keep up with both first ladies, especially with the fashion sense she has. Chinese politicians tend to be fixed on designer clothes from foreign designers but Peng Liyuan also wears clothes by Chinese designers.

Since the birth of the People's Republic, Peng Liyuan is the first wife of the president who likes to be seen in public. Her predecessors preferred to stay out of the public eye. There are historical reasons for this. Mao Zedong's fourth and last wife Jiang Qing - also known as Madame Mao - was the ringleader of the Gang of Four which is seen as primarily responsible for the tragedies of the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976.

China's new first lady and singer Peng Liyuan salutes during a performance for a People's Liberation Army's unit in Luoyang, Henan province (Photo: REUTERS/Stringer)

Peng joined the army at the age of 18 and attained the rank of major general

Proximity to the military

But things are supposed to be different with Peng Liyuan. Commentators in China say she strengthens China's "soft power." As a singer, she is the perfect person to represent Chinese culture and also improve the country's image abroad.

Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute of Nottingham University, said she played her role well representing the "soft side" of China's leadership. But her proximity to the military could become a problem in the long run, he added.

At the age of 18, Peng joined the People's Liberation Army and climbed the ranks to become a major general. There is a photo circulating the Internet on which she is supposedly singing before a military company that was involved in the violent crackdown of the 1989 student uprising at Tiananmen Square. Tsang told DW it could not necessarily be seen as a positive thing that Peng was such a high-ranking member of the military and at the same time married to the commander-in-chief of the Chinese military.

Peng Liyuan singing (photo: EPA/XIAO LI dpa)

As a singer, Peng has something in common with France's ex-first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy

Approval for activism

Peng began her singing career in the army. She made her breakthrough at a New Year gala aired on the state television broadcaster, CCTV, in 1982. She impressed the nation with renditions of folksongs and patriotic tunes. But Peng retreated for the most part from the spotlight as soon as it became clear that her husband would become the leader of the party and the country.

Now, aside from the occasional performance, the 50-year-old is primarily involved in charitable things. She is known as an AIDS activist. In the year 2011, she became a World Health Organization (WHO) special envoy to the fight against HIV and tuberculosis. But according to Johanna Hood of the Australian National University, she had to get permission from the party to do the volunteer work.

"It's hard to say whether or not the idea to campaign against AIDS was hers. But it is not easy to talk about such things in China."

One musn't forget that with regards to her person and her style, many of the decisions are made by the party leadership, Jean-Pierre Cabestan of the Hong Kong Baptist University told DW. The French sinologist said he did not believe she had much freedom when it came to her persona and to her volunteer work. "Her performances are well rehearsed in agreement with the party," he said. China did not leave anything to chance.

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