When China’s First Lady Peng Liyuan, 50, stepped off a plane, arms linked with husband President Xi Jinping, last Friday in Moscow the main point of attention for China’s netizens was something quite unprecedented: her fashion sense. Given United States First Lady Michelle Obama’s keen eye for fashion, this has prompted many to draw comparisons.
In The Telegraph, Malcolm Moore wrote that her choice of elegant black coat and light blue scarf “caused something akin to the ‘Kate Middleton effect,’ with copies of her coat instantly appearing (online)…advertised as ‘in the same style as the first lady’s.’”
Moving on from Moscow, China’s first couple made a trip to Africa, where they toured Tanzania, South Africa and Congo. When Chinese netizens caught a glimpse of the pearl earrings she was wearing in Africa, these became the next hot ticket item. An article in The Christian Science Monitor says that once the origin of the earrings became known – they’re from the city of Zhuji in Zhejiang province – one company’s stocks skyrocketed so suddenly that regulators had to put a cap on their price.
While this would seem like positive press, the Chinese government has instead chosen to censor searches on China’s Weibo microblogging service for the queries “Peng Liyuan same item” and “First lady same item.” The Wall Street Journal notes that Taobao, China’s eBay, has also pulled advertisements for similar items. But this has not stopped the onslaught of attention.
In the bigger picture, Peng’s entry into the spotlight marks a radical break with the way China’s past leaders have conducted themselves in public. Even the Global Times, a newspaper with close ties to Beijing, has suggested that this marks a step forward for China’s image in the world. “First lady’s radiance delights world and boosts soft power,” reads the headline of an article recently penned for the newspaper by Shen Dingli, dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University. Another article published in the paper is titled “Public’s enthusiasm for Peng mirrors brightness of new political scene.”
“In her role as first lady on this visit abroad, Peng Liyuan is exhibiting China’s soft power,” the Beijing News tabloid quoted Wang Fan of the Institute of International Relations at China Foreign Affairs University as saying. “As a singer and artist and a long-term advocate for poverty relief and other causes, Peng has an excellent public image.”
As Wan’s comments suggest, Peng is famed for her soprano voice, which she has used to deliver stirring renditions of patriotic tunes in uniform on China’s CCTV television network. Also an ambassador for the World Health Organization, for which she has worked on tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS outreach, Peng appeared beside Bill Gates last year during a campaign against smoking (more than 300 million Chinese light up, according to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey conducted in 2009-2010).
It’s hard to say how far Peng’s soft power reach will extend beyond China – with its image crises abroad – but at home she is clearly making headway.
“Because of her performer’s background and presence, I think she will definitely add points for her husband,” Tian Yimiao, an associate professor at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, told The New York Times. “It could make her into a diplomatic idol.”