When Liu Shaoqi, then China’s president, visited Indonesia in 1963, his wife Wang Guangmei helped him accomplish his mission. An elegant figure in a traditional Qipao dress, she helped China, poor and shaken by constant political campaigns, project a positive image abroad.
Her high profile came back to haunt her. As her husband was targeted as a “counterrevolutionary” in the Cultural Revolution, modern China’s most brutal political campaign, Ms Wang was paraded on the street in a too-tight Qipao made to look like it was splitting open and a mock necklace made of ping pong balls. She was then jailed for 12 years. Jiang Qing, the last wife of Mao Zedong and one of the few to in effect control China during the Cultural Revolution, was said to have had a hand in Ms Wang’s persecution.
Since then, the concept of first lady has been practically redundant. But Xi Jinping, who is set to assume full power today with the post of president following his ascent to the post of Communist party chief last November, now intends to capitalise on the charisma of his singer wife Peng Liyuan to tackle China’s image problems abroad.
“This is a symbol of China catching up with international practice. There is a lot of talk about how we have a first lady we can be proud of,” says Chen Yan, a history professor at Fudan University.
Compared with western first ladies, Ms Peng’s planned appearance on Mr Xi’s trip may seem minor. She will give a short speech in South Africa, sources familiar with the matter say. But it is a big step in China: The experience of figures such as Jiang Qing has imprinted on the party the lesson that politics and family do not mix – at least not in public.
Deng Xiaoping, the politician who led China out of Mao’s struggles towards reform and opening, and his successor Jiang Zemin rarely took their wives on overseas visits. Hu Jintao, who steps down today, was accompanied by his wife on most foreign trips, but the petite Liu Yongqing always remained silent.
The party became even more reluctant to parade leaders’ wives in public as their relatives have gained a disproportionate amount of economic influence after China’s market reforms. Wen Jiabao, the premier who will step down tomorrow, always kept his wife, a jewellery expert, out of the limelight as her business dealings tarnished his reputation and fuelled public anger about corruption.
The scandal over the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, which brought down party leadership hopeful Bo Xilai last year, was a reminder of days gone by as Gu Kailai, Mr Bo’s high-strung wife, became the main instrument for undoing Mr Bo as she was found guilty of the Heywood murder.
In such a climate, managing Ms Peng’s public persona has been a sensitive task for the party.
The 50-year-old folk singer, who holds the equivalent of a major general’s rank in the People’s Liberation Army, is a superstar at home. For many years, she was one of the highlights of state broadcaster CCTV’s annual lunar new year gala, China’s biggest entertainment event. Videos of her singing praising the motherland, the party or the armed forces in her trademark piercing soprano, with big hair and clad in stunning robes or a PLA uniform, are still favourites of the older generation.
Since Mr Xi’s ascent to the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s centre of political power, in 2007, Ms Peng has lowered her profile. She has stopped all commercial performances. But in 2011, she became a goodwill ambassador for tuberculosis and HIV for the World Health Organisation. In this role, she must engage with governments in other countries. Many in China hope she can do more than that. “Having the first lady step up to centre stage is good. It is a move of political openness and transparency,” says Jiang Jin, a history professor at East China Normal University.
A friend of Ms Peng’s says she could make a big impact. “She will win over hearts with her warm personality,” he says. “She is open and spontaneous.”
That is in line with the style Mr Xi is trying to adopt for his leadership. In December, state media took the unprecedented step of releasing photos of him with members of his family. Alistair Michie, a British PR expert in China, sees them as part of a strategy to present Mr Xi as a leader people can connect with. “They were showing he has feelings, that he has family, that he is a human being.”
Additional reporting by Zhao Tianqi
自2007年习近平进入中共中央政治局常委以来，彭丽媛开始变得低调，不再参加任何商业演出。中共中央政治局常委是中国政治权力的核心。但在2011年，彭丽媛被世界卫生组织(WHO)聘为“抗击结核病和艾滋病亲善大使”。她因此必须和各国政府打交道。许多中国人希望，她能做得更多一些。华东师范大学(East China Normal University)历史学教授姜进表示：“让第一夫人走进公众视野是好事。这是走向政治开放和透明的一步。”