x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Newsmaker: Peng Liyuan helps China sing a new tune

A look at the life of Peng Liyuan, the Chinese first lady

Peng Liyuan (Illustration by Kagan Mcleod)
Peng Liyuan (Illustration by Kagan Mcleod)

The last time Xi Jinping visited America he left his wife at home. That was last year, when he sat down for talks with Barack Obama in Washington as China's vice-president.

But when he arrives today at the Annenberg Estate in Rancho Mirage, California, for two days of far-reaching informal conversation with the American president, the man who was anointed Chinese leader on March 14 will have at his side the woman who is not only redefining the traditionally low-profile role of communism's First Lady but who could also give China the PR makeover in the West it so badly needs.

In China, Peng Liyuan's fame predates that of her husband. The couple married in 1987, when her husband was a relatively minor cog in the Communist Party machine, serving on the municipal committee in the mountainous south-eastern province of Fujian.

Peng, on the other hand, was already famous nationwide as a popular folk singer, whose annual appearances on Chinese television's new year programme attracted hundreds of millions of viewers.

Little is known about Peng's early life and parents - public speculation about the private lives of China's elite is not encouraged - beyond the officially admired fact that, in 1980 at the age of 18, she joined the People's Liberation Army, the military wing of the Communist Party of China.

She was a volunteer - military service in China at 18 is compulsory only for men - but her superiors quickly realised that the greatest weapon in the arsenal of their patriotic new recruit was her voice.

Her first deployment was to the Chinese-Vietnamese border, where more than a million Chinese troops were stationed on high alert for a decade of on-off aggression following the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war.

Rapidly elevated to the status of forces' sweetheart, in 1982 Peng's fame first achieved national proportions with her debut appearance on China Central Television's New Year's Gala that, with more than 700 million viewers, is one of the most widely watched television programmes in the world.

In retrospect, Peng's greatest career move came in 1987, when she married the man who would become leader of the world's most populous country, though at the time such an outcome for Xi was far from certain.

Indeed, some would say that Xi is the one who has benefited most from the marriage. Despite his pedigree as one of China's elite Communist Party "princelings", Xi's personal star very nearly failed to rise.

His father, Xi Zhongxun, had risen to the post of vice-premier under Zhou Enlai, but in 1962 was purged from the party during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution.

Five years later, Xi, considered part of the despised urban bourgeoisie, was exiled to the countryside to live and work in poverty on the land for seven years.

He joined the Communist Party in 1974 and, by the time he married Peng in 1987, had served diligently if unspectacularly in two provinces.

His decisive break in China's complex power game came in 2007, when he was handed the hot-potato role of party chief in Shanghai.

His predecessor, Chen Liangyu, had been jailed for 18 years following a corruption scandal. Xi, who introduced sweeping reforms that restored the party's reputation, emerged as his generation's main political contender, as confirmed by his elevation to the ranks of the nine-member Politburo committee in October 2007 and his subsequent appointment as vice-president in March 2008.

Quite how much Xi's ascent has owed to his wife's popularity is unclear, but throughout the years of their marriage Peng's fame has clearly done her husband no harm.

As a civilian, she has maintained her close links with the military - she remains head of the Chinese Song and Dance Ensemble in the General Political Department of the People's Liberation Army - and her repertoire has always been traditional and highly patriotic in nature.

The first song she sang on television, in 1982, was the nationalistic On the Plains of Hope. Other hits over the years have included such similarly patriotic anthems as Embroidering the Red Flag, My Motherland, Soldier and Mother, My Wonderful Hometown and The Flag Eulogy.

China's Bruce Springsteen, she ain't.

Indeed, her allegiance to the army and the state - as a civilian former member of the PLA she still carries the honorary rank of major-general - recently threw up a difficulty for a woman keen to present herself to the world as a caring, modern first wife with liberal leanings.

Earlier this year a photograph appeared on the Chinese internet - again, briefly - showing a uniformed Peng singing to troops in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989 after the killings of hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators that shocked the world.

Now her husband is in the national and international limelight, Peng has done her best to play the dutiful political wife. When her husband became vice-president, Peng indeed appeared at first to be adopting the traditional role of a Chinese leader's wife - faceless, anonymous and firmly in the background. She even gave up her regular new year TV appearances and withdrew from all public performances.

But all that changed in March, when the new president embarked on his first overseas tour, visiting Russia, South Africa, Tanzania and Congo, with his fashionably dressed wife firmly at his side.

For The New York Times, Peng offered "a startling contrast to her dour-looking predecessors ... At a time when China's Foreign Ministry is struggling to improve China's international image, Ms Peng, 50, who has dazzled audiences at home and abroad with her bravura soprano voice, comes as a welcome gift."

For the record, noted the Financial Times, "Eagle-eyed fashion-savvy bloggers identified the leather handbag she carried and smart, double-breasted black trench coat she wore as items designed by Guangzhou-based label Exception."

One can only imagine the number of revolutions per minute being achieved by Mao in his grave.

Zhang Yu, editor of China's Vogue magazine, told the FT that it was "the first time that China's First Lady appears like a modern woman. I think she dressed very well, with taste and confidence ... After so many years, we finally have a First Lady who can represent us so appropriately. I think it is a landmark event."

But if that was a landmark event, then the current four-nation whistle-stop tour of the Americas by China's new president and his wife promises to alter the perception of China's political landscape overseas irreversibly.

Throughout the tour, Peng has been anything but in the background, stepping off aircraft in a variety of fashionable First Lady outfits and winning wide coverage and praise for her charm and outgoing personality, whether visiting children with disabilities in a hospital in Costa Rica or joining the band on stage to play steel drums during a concert in Trinidad and Tobago.

It is in the US, of course, where much on the presidential agenda depends on building an improved relationship with China, that Peng's arrival has been most feverishly anticipated.

The ground was laid last month when Forbes Magazine released its annual list of the world's 100 most powerful women, putting her at number 54.

By the eve of the Chinese president's arrival in the US, the potential diplomatic significance of his wife had been cranked up to superhuman proportions by the western media, which has compared her to everyone from Jackie Kennedy to Kate Middleton.

For Britain's Daily Telegraph, Peng was the "Carla Bruni of the East", who China's leaders were hoping could "transform their country's international image and boost Beijing's long-standing quest for soft power".

Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Shanghai's Fudan University, told the paper that Peng "is talented. She is presentable. She shows respect to others and expresses the desire to work harmoniously together ... The First Lady has a graceful way of presenting the ways in which China is attractive."

And Peng and her husband, who has spoken of a "Chinese Dream" of prosperity for all, have quietly acknowledged that America has its attractions for the Chinese. In 2010, after a year of study at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, the couple's daughter Xi Mingze was enrolled at Harvard University.

Of course, no self-respecting modern First Lady is without her portfolio of charity and ambassadorial roles, and Peng is no exception. In China, she has spent the past five years working with the Health Ministry on various initiatives, work that was recognised in 2011 when the World Health Organisation appointed her its Goodwill Ambassador for Tuberculosis and HIV/Aids.

At a ceremony in Geneva to mark the occasion, WHO director-general Margaret Chan heaped praise on Peng. "With numerous honours bestowed on her nationally and internationally," said Dr Chan, "she is a big bright star with a huge and respectful audience of admirers."

And, if Peng Liyuan has anything to do with it, by the time she and her husband leave California tomorrow, those admirers will include President Obama and the American people.

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