Dean of the People’s Liberation Army Art Academy. Goodwill Ambassador of the World Health Organization. Renowned Soprano Singer. Practitioner of Buddhism. China’s anti-smoking ambassador. Member of the China’s upper house (CPPCC). It is rare to see a Chinese first lady wear so many hats and be defined in so many ways, but Peng Liyuan, who is hosting U.S. first lady Michelle Obama in her visit to Beijing, can be described as such.
But Peng is not “China’s first first lady,” as the Western media would like to suggest. Many observers (including Laura Tyson Li in her 2007 book) consider Soong Mayling, the wife of Chiang Kai-shek of the Republic of China, “China’s Eternal First Lady.” Born to a Christian family and educated in the United States, Soong symbolized what many Americans hoped China would become – a modern, educated, pro-American country. Indeed, Soong was so well regarded in the United States that she was featured on the cover of TIME magazine three times.
Strictly speaking, Peng was not the first first lady in the history of PRC either. In the early 1960s, Wang Guangmei was a visible diplomatic companion to her husband, Liu Shaoqi, Mao’s second in command, and officially China’s president before his purge during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Further, Wang’s reputation as China’s beautiful, articulate, and sophisticated first lady also drew the jealousy of Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, a Chinese movie star turned de facto first lady. Jiang later abetted the Red Guards in punishing Wang’s “inappropriate” behavior on the international stage by forcing her to wear a tight-fitting traditional Chinese dress with a mocking necklace made out of ping pong balls at mass rallies.
But despite the chronology, Peng is arguably the most popular and the least controversial. Indeed, for more than two decades, her popularity as a folksinger in China overshadowed that of Xi Jinping, who only first saw his political star shine in March 2007 when he became the party chief in Shanghai. Since 2006, Peng has been heavily involved in charity. At the invitation of the Ministry of Health, she developed MTV programs promoting the support and care to AIDS orphans in China. In 2008, she submitted the “Proposal for Strengthening Psychosocial Care for AIDS Orphans” at the CPPCC session. It was reported that Peng’s personal involvement in the advocacy work played an important role in raising the profile of HIV/AIDS prevention and care among the provincial leaders in China. Over time, she has also become interested in other public health issues, such as tuberculosis and tobacco control. In recognition of her “potential influence” in these areas, WHO Director General Margaret Chan appointed her Goodwill Ambassador for Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS in 2011. In May 2012, she appeared with Bill Gates to promote an anti-smoking campaign ahead of the 25th World No-Tobacco Day in Beijing. Since her husband’s elevation to the most powerful position in China, Peng has increasingly been travelling abroad, prompting some Chinese media to tout the first lady as an example of China’s expanding soft power.
In a way, Peng’s popularity as a first lady conjures up the image of an “ideal” woman in the rapidly changing but still male dominated Chinese society—one who carves out her own career path but helps her husband prosper as well (wangfu in Chinese). Peng’s charity work and engagement in soft diplomacy also complement Xi’s role as an authoritarian leader who sometimes relies on ruthless statecraft in the domestic and international arenas. In the words of Chinese philosophy, the couple presumably epitomizes the perfect combination of yin and yang.
It is for this reason that Peng’s role as the first lady should not be overstated. Except for her membership with the CPPCC, she does not hold any formal positions in the Chinese political hierarchy. This sets her apart from Soong, who took a leading role in the nationalist politics (and at one point, ran Chiang’s air force), or Jiang, who was a politburo member and had real power. That said, Peng does have political influence. A devout Buddhist, Peng allegedly persuaded Xi (then party secretary of Zhejiang Province) to organize a World Buddhist Conference in 2006. But that influence is primarily informal and has its limits. Her role as China’s anti-smoking ambassador, for example, has apparently failed to convince her husband to speak publicly against tobacco use in China, even though more than 1.2 million die of smoking related illness annually. In a nutshell, Peng is definitely no Asma al-Assad, but she is no Eva Perón either.
Yanzhong Huang is Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations. This piece was previously published on CFR.org’s Asia Unbound blog.