He is the most powerful person in China and head of the world’s second largest economy, but when Xi Jinping arrives for the Brics summit in South Africa on Tuesday, chances are that all eyes in his home country will be on the woman at his side.
Peng Liyuan, China’s new first lady, was the talk of Chinese social media at the weekend during a trip to Russia when she emerged as a trendy contrast to her predecessors.
Pictures of Peng stepping off a plane with Xi in Moscow on Friday – the first stop on his first trip abroad since assuming China’s presidency on 14 March – went viral online with praise for her attire: black high heels and stockings, an understated leather bag and a light blue scarf emerging from beneath a dark trenchcoat, collar turned up against the wind.
The 50-year-old People’s Liberation Army singer is often compared to Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, Michelle Obama, Raisa Gorbachev and even Kate Middleton: a charismatic performer, trendsetter and dash of colour in an otherwise monochrome regime.
“I kind of knew she would play some role in public life, but not in this way,” said Wang Zhengxu, an associate professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham. “Somehow she just hijacked the limelight from Xi Jinping on Chinese cyberspace. That’s quite a dramatic development in my view.”
After bloggers identified Peng’s bag, coat and scarf as products from the Guangzhou-based outlet Exception, the company’s website crashed on Friday from an overload of traffic. On Sunday the site was still loading only intermittently.
Exception was founded by a Guangzhou-based couple in 1996 who now run about 100 outlets across the country. “[Its CEO] once said Exception is best suited for this type of woman: a bit artistic, someone who appreciates quality but also stands apart, someone who understands international trends but wants to express her eastern flare,” the LadyMax fashion website reported. “Is this not Peng Liyuan’s style?”
The Beijing-based entrepreneur Wang Lifen said Peng’s life story was a classic inspirational tale.
“Born into poverty, she used her innate singing ability to leave her home town, worked diligently to complete a master’s degree at China Conservatory of Music, and used her gradually growing fame and visionary intelligence to start dating a low-level cadre,” she wrote. “This is why so many people admire her.”
The recently retired president Hu Jintao‘s wife, Liu Yongqing, and Jiang Zemin’s wife, Wang Yeping, were both known to keep low profiles. Looking for their names on Chinese search engines brings up only fragmentary biographical information such as birth dates and alma maters.
When Xi assumed the Communist party’s top post in November, analysts predicted that Peng would remain as low-key as her predecessors: after all, the soprano had chosen to eschew large-scale performances in recent years to avoid drawing attention from her husband’s political career.
Yet Peng’s arrival in Moscow was covered extensively by China Central Television and received a full-page spread in the Beijing News. The couple arrived in Tanzania on Sunday, and on Monday Peng was pictured in a bright red scarf casually draped over a tailored black jacket and white dress.
Some commentators have expressed hopes that she will take a more active role in forthcoming visits to South Africa and the Republic of Congo. Peng was appointed as the World Health Organisation‘s goodwill ambassador for tuberculosis and Aids in 2011.
Peng joined the People’s Liberation Army as a civilian at 18 and had already reached the heights of folksinging fame when she first met Xi in the south-eastern province of Fujian in 1986. She is best known for her 24 years as a soloist at the annual spring festival gala, perhaps the most-watched television event in the world, belting folk songs in her brassy, nasal soprano.
In one widely shared video clip, Peng, dressed in military garb, sings about “bravely advancing for victory” amid a chorus line of bayonet-wielding soldiers. The stage show is juxtaposed with stock footage of battle-ready Chinese tanks, jets and warships.
Internet censors have given largely free reign to positive discussion of Peng but have kept a grip on the conversation. Terms such as “Auntie Peng” and “first lady Xi” have been blocked on Sina Weibo. Wang Zhengxu said censors probably wanted to maintain Peng’s image as a symbol of public diplomacy rather than brash commercialism.
By Jonathan Kaiman Guardian News & Media