China's first lady is a rising diplomatic star

China's first lady is a rising diplomatic star

Glamorous new first lady Peng Liyuan has emerged as Chinese diplomacy’s latest star, charming audiences and cutting a very different profile from her all-but invisible predecessors on her debut official visit abroad to Russia.

A celebrated performer on state television, Peng featured prominently in Sunday’s Chinese media coverage of husband and President Xi Jinping’s activities in Moscow. The visit is Xi’s first since he assumed the presidency earlier this month. Peng watched song and dance routines at a performing arts school on Saturday, but did not join in as some media reports had suggested she might. Xi’s trip continues this week with stops in Tanzania, South Africa and Congo, during which Peng is expected to hold other public events.

An internationally popular first lady could help soften China’s sometimes abrasive international image and mark a victory in its so-far unsuccessful struggle to win over global public opinion. At the same time, she could boost the popularity of the country’s new leadership.

In recent years, the wives of China’s top officials have traditionally gone almost unseen at home and attracted little attention while accompanying their husbands on state visits abroad. That was in part a negative reaction to Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, who was widely despised and later imprisoned for her role as leader of the radical Gang of Four, which mercilessly persecuted political opponents during the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

Recently retired Premier Wen Jiabao’s wife, Zhang Peili, became known for her role in the country’s gem trade and was never seen in public with her husband.

Peng’s emerging high profile appears to be an extension of Xi’s own confidence as he consolidates his control on power and presses a more assertive role for China in global affairs, said Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at Britain’s University of Nottingham. Her training as a singer and stage performer offers the perfect preparation for such a role, he said. “Xi doesn’t need to worry about what other (politicians) might think of her,” Tsang said.

Peng, 50, in recent years has won acclaim as an ambassador for the WHO. Among the issues she has worked on are TB and HIV/Aids.

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