x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

China challenged by leaked photo of first lady

A photo of China's new first lady, Peng Liyuan, singing to martial-law troops in 1989, has been swiftly scrubbed from China's internet before it could generate discussion online.

A computer screen shows websites displaying an undated photo of China’s new first lady Peng Liyuan singing to martial law troops following the 1989 bloody military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing.
A computer screen shows websites displaying an undated photo of China’s new first lady Peng Liyuan singing to martial law troops following the 1989 bloody military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing.

BEIJING // A photo of China's new first lady, Peng Liyuan, singing to martial-law troops in 1989 flickered across Chinese cyberspace this week.

It was swiftly scrubbed from China's internet before it could generate discussion online. But the image - seen and shared by outside observers - revived a memory the leadership prefers to suppress and shows one of the challenges in presenting Mrs Peng on the world stage as the softer side of China.

The country has no recent precedent for the role of first lady, and also faces a tricky balance at home. The leadership wants Mrs Peng to show the human side of its new president, Xi Jinping, while not exposing too many perks of the elite. And it must balance popular support for the first couple with an acute wariness of personality cults that could skew the consensus rule among the Chinese Communist Party's top leaders.

The image of Mrs Peng in a green military uniform, her hair tied back in a ponytail as she sings to troops seated in rows on Beijing's Tiananmen Square, contrasts with her appearances this week in trendy suits and coiffed hair while touring Russia and Africa with Mr Xi.

"I think that we have a lot of people hoping that because Xi Jinping walks around without a tie on and his wife is a singer who travels with him on trips that maybe we're dealing with a new kind of leader, but I think these images remind people that this is the same party," said Kelley Currie, a China human rights expert for the pro-democracy Project 2049 Institute in Arlington, Virginia.

"It's using some new tools and new techniques for the same purposes: to preserve its own power."

Mrs Peng, 50, a major general in the People's Liberation Army who is best known for soaring renditions of patriotic odes to the military and the party, kept a low profile in recent years as her husband prepared to take over as the Communist Party chief.