China’s incoming first lady a challenge for the image makers

Peng Liyuan sings during a national gala honoring the Chinese army in 2007. Her husband, Xi Jinping, is soon to become president of China.
(Feng Li / Getty Images)

BEIJING — She has a resume that would make U.S. political consultants drool: A renowned soprano who’s performed for troops serving the motherland, opera fans at Lincoln Center and ordinary Chinese watching annual TV variety galas, she’s also a World Health Organization goodwill ambassador in the fight against tuberculosis and HIV.

She’s volunteered to help earthquake victims and hobnobbed with Bill Gates at an anti-smoking event in Beijing. An “artist-soldier” in the army, she holds a civilian rank equivalent to major general, and sometimes belts out patriotic melodies in military skirt suits (some favorite tunes: “On the Plains of Hope” and “People From Our Village”).

And the 49-year-old with the approachable good looks has the Tiger Mom base covered too: Her daughter is studying at Harvard.


As China counts down to its carefully scripted 18th Communist Party congress next month, everyone here knows the country will soon get a new president, and who it will be. (Spoiler alert: His name is Xi Jinping.)

But there is suspense over one element of the transition: Will the nation get a full-fledged first lady as well in the form of Peng Liyuan?

The spouses of China’s senior leaders have kept a low profile in the decades since Mao Tse-tung’s power-hungry wife, reviled in the official press as the “White-Boned Demon,” shot to infamy as a member of the Gang of Four. Madame Mao received a suspended death sentence on charges that included counter-revolution, and later committed suicide.

After the low-key Xi was tapped as Hu Jintao’s heir apparent in 2007, many observers predicted that Peng would be a cosmopolitan, Western-style first lady embodying a more open, modern China.

Yet crafting a public role for Peng will require Communist Party image makers to delicately navigate millenniums-old suspicion of women near the center of power in China, the party’s own squeamishness about making officials’ private lives public, and a gossipy media culture increasingly critical of elites’ lifestyles and behavior.

“In China, there’s still this strain of thought, particularly in the countryside, that there are two possible roles for a female: the woman is either servile … or an empress type,” said Ross Terrill, who wrote biographies of Mao and his wife, Jiang Qing. “There’s still a feeling that women can lead men astray, especially in affairs of the state.”

The woman-as-evil-schemer archetype got some recent reinforcement when one of Xi’s rivals for the top party job, Bo Xilai, was ousted from the Politburo amid a scandal involving his wife, a prominent lawyer named Gu Kailai, who was convicted of murdering a British businessman.

The popular Peng could be a real asset for Xi, Terrill said. But “if the party suddenly appeared to be putting her in a box, saying no to her career, then that could trigger annoyance in the public,” he said. “It could be a test of how modernized they are.”


The Oct. 1 issue of the glossy celebrity magazine OK China featured a seven-page spread on the famous politician and his wife: photos of her “flawless wardrobe,” details about their date nights, even a copy of their marriage certificate. But the pair wasn’t Xi and Peng: It was the Obamas.

OK China’s editor in chief, Feng Chuxuan, said that since May, the magazine has also printed articles on the Kennedy family women, former French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, Kate Middleton and Princess Diana — all in response to reader requests.

But OK China has no plans to write about Peng, he said. “Readers don’t ask us to publish stories about Chinese leaders’ wives … because they know there are no [approved] channels for such stories,” he said. “We know we cannot touch such stories.”

Although former and current top officials appear in public regularly with their wives, the women are mostly quiet bystanders. On the rare occasions when a leader’s wife has made a media splash, it hasn’t always been a positive one.

Peng seems to have avoided some common celebrity pitfalls, like tax scandals, that could taint her squeaky-clean image. Though she’s perfectly at ease performing in flowing ball gowns, she doesn’t conspicuously wear designer clothing or accessories offstage, which eagle-eyed Internet users could pounce on as signs of out-of-touch elitism or corruption.

“In China’s circle of the performing arts, it is a mission impossible to find someone more appropriate to represent the image of the Chinese women than Peng Liyuan,” the Southern People Weekly magazine gushed in 2005. “She has a face like a full moon, shining eyes and white teeth, and she is upright and straightforward, frank and friendly.… She not only charms the political and official arena, but also enchants the masses.”

But there’s clearly sensitivity: Peng’s name is blocked on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, and searches for her on China’s censored Internet turn up limited results.


Because of her singing career, the broad outlines of Peng’s life story have long been public, though many people didn’t realize until the last few years that she has been married to Xi since 1987. (It’s her first marriage, his second; his union with the daughter of China’s former ambassador to Britain dissolved after a few years.)

Since 2007, select mainland media outlets have published a slow, steady drip of apparently authorized, often saccharine details about her relationship with the now president-to-be. The stories have emphasized her wifely ways and love for family — even if she and Xi have spent much of their unconventional marriage apart and seldom made joint appearances.

Some accounts have mentioned that Peng once sewed Xi a quilt, hauling it around on a concert tour before she could deliver it to him in the south, where he was living without central heat. Another article talked of Xi staying up late for Peng, making dumplings and awaiting her return from the spring TV gala.

The long-distance relationship has been chalked up to her singing career, which she says he encouraged, and his duties in political posts scattered around the country. When Peng gave birth to their daughter in 1992, Xi was reportedly absent because he had to attend to the government’s response to a typhoon.

However true or apocryphal such anecdotes may be, China watchers say they will be looking to see how Peng and Xi present themselves in the coming months for clues on the new administration’s style.

“As a new leader, you always should give some kind of freshness to the public. You need to uplift the public confidence, and it’s really quite low in the wake of the Bo Xilai scandal and the economic slowdown,” said Cheng Li, a China expert at the Brookings Institution. “Xi needs to do a lot himself, but with a beautiful, popular first lady, this kind of image could be very helpful.”


Although Peng’s social activism and singing career hold obvious benefits for Xi, there is the potential for awkwardness as well.

For about the last decade, Peng has had a high profile in campaigns to reduce the stigma around AIDS, working with the Health Ministry and other celebrities to raise public awareness of the disease.

Yet AIDS remains a sensitive subject for the government. For example, former health officials living abroad have repeatedly called on the central government to take legal action against Vice Premier Li Keqiang, alleging that as governor of Henan province in the 1990s his neglect contributed to the rapid spread of AIDS among rural residents who sold their blood.

Johanna Hood, a postdoctoral fellow at Australian National University who has studied Peng’s public health work, noted that activism around AIDS in China can be seen as both supporting the government and implicitly criticizing its response to the disease.

“I imagine it became a bit awkward with the rise of Xi Jinping. If you look at her language, how she talks about it — she says ‘it appeals to my motherly instincts; my child had such a good upbringing, and so I must do something’ — that rounds off some of the political edges of it,” Hood said. “But just 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.”

Peng’s appointment as a WHO health ambassador on TB and AIDS in 2011 certainly is in keeping with her domestic activism. Yet it also allows her room to pivot slightly away from any AIDS-related political sensitivity. At the same time, China wants to raise its profile in international organizations like WHO, Hood noted, and so Peng’s appointment can be seen as serving that goal as well.

“There are multiple ways to look at her and her activism,” Hood said. “But Xi’s position and his role must have something to do with it, especially the way she dropped off the radar and now is picking back up.”

After 2007, Peng seemed to cut back on some of her performances, including the TV galas. But she sang in Japan in 2009 and appeared that year with a 1,000-member chorus during a massive National Day affair marking the 60th anniversary of Communist China.

Even if Peng becomes a trailblazing politician’s wife, there are limits.

Don’t look for her at the November ceremonies the way you would expect an American president-elect’s wife to be on hand at his inauguration, said Li Yinhe, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

“No one will bring their wife to the party congress,” she said. “It would be a big joke.”

Nicole Liu of The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.