BEIJING — In China this week, Michelle Obama may finally meet her match.
As first ladies go, she has dominated the global stage. Her fashion choices drive retail sales, her causes draw headlines and her popularity at home is high.
The same is true for Peng Liyuan, a famed folk singer whose husband became China’s president last year. Few in or out of China knew the names of previous first ladies, but Peng, whom many consider China’s first real first lady, has changed that. Peng promotes rural education and campaigns against tuberculosis for the World Health Organization, and her sharp sense of style won her a place on Vanity Fair’s international best-dressed list last year. (Even Obama didn’t make the magazine’s cut.)
Peng welcomes Obama to China on Thursday evening and a question looms: Will the world’s two most-watched first ladies like each other?
The women, who are contemporaries in many ways and both in their early 50s, are set to spend a full day together Friday. Peng will take Obama through Beijing’s Forbidden City, accompany her to a school and host a private dinner and performance for her.
“Between past Chinese first ladies and American first ladies, there really hasn’t been much interaction,” says Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow for the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. “The first ladies on both sides were not the main actors in the Sino-American drama. But could there be some symbolism that emerges from this meeting?”
It has been decades since Chinese and American leaders have clicked at high levels, says Cheng Li, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution. “Both of them are charming, have good style, play an important role to support their husband,” says Li, whose eager voice conveys the anticipation in both the East and West. “Both of them have daughters still kind of young.” And Peng’s daughter attends Harvard, where both Obamas studied law.
Peng is a well-known civilian member of the Chinese army’s musical troupe, and she has been admired by hundreds of millions even before she became first lady because of her annual performances on state television’s New Year’s Eve shows. For years, she was more famous than her husband, Xi Jinping, as he rose through Communist Party ranks. And according to people who have met her, she exudes an easy grace, a confident grasp of conversational English and a seemingly sincere heart for charitable causes.
It doesn’t hurt that Obama, who is visiting China for the first time, has said if she could choose a talent, she would be “some great singer.”
It could be quickly clear whether the two women hit it off, according to Peng’s own views.
“There is a saying, ‘Eyes are the windows to the soul.’ It means, mostly, people can see through someone else by eye contact in seven seconds,” Peng said in a 1999 television interview. “I have a habit that if I meet someone I don’t know, I’d like to look at her or his eyes on purpose. When my eyes lay on them, I can immediately see their true color.”
Not much is known about Peng’s background. The singer began lowering her own profile in 2007, after her husband emerged as the likely appointee to the presidency. Once famous for wistfully crooning popular patriotic songs of the 1980s and ’90s, she has quit the annual New Year’s Eve show altogether and in the years before her husband became president stopped performing except for at a handful of charity and Communist Party-related events.
At the same time, she took new roles that allow her some public exposure, albeit within fairly controlled environments. She became a volunteer for the government’s work on AIDS in 2006 and its ambassador for tobacco control in 2009. In 2012, she was appointed ambassador for the fight against tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS for the World Health Organization.
Peng’s decision to be a more conventional, Western-type first lady, shunning overtly political controversies in favor of soft power, is closely matched with Obama’s approach to the role — though under a more rigid set of circumstances. Because of the traditional gender restrictions and limitations the Chinese government places on women, Peng’s political role is purposely narrow, sparking the kind of feminist debate in which Obama has sometimes found herself embroiled, says Feng Yuan, a feminist academic and head of the Anti-Domestic Violence Network in Beijing. “It doesn’t matter how different Peng is from the past first ladies. They all reflect the gender division of this country,” says Feng, noting that China’s political system remains thoroughly male-dominated.
But Peng is quite different from past first ladies, who were neither seen nor heard, have never functioned as diplomats and often kept such a low profile within China that they could not be picked out in a crowd.
“Peng Liyuan invited Michelle Obama in her own name to visit China; this is the first time,” says Li Yinhe, a sociologist and researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think-tank. “It makes China look like a representative government system. It has a more political flavor.”
Obama’s decision to accept the invitation could begin to repair lingering disappointment in China over a skipped opportunity to meet Peng last year when she and President Xi flew to California for a meeting with President Obama. The Obamas’ youngest daughter, Sasha, was celebrating a birthday and Michelle Obama stayed home. It was roundly seen as impolite and generally foreign to the Chinese authorities’ way of thinking, where matters of politics trump family and personality. Stories of top leaders and their families are heavily censored from the country’s newspapers and Web sites.
Peng’s name is not blocked from online searchers, but at least one government directive is believed to have been sent last year warning Chinese media after pictures started circulating of Peng taking a photograph with her iPhone during a visit to Mexico last year. It’s unclear why the warning was issued, but some have theorized that government censors were concerned that Peng would be seen as acting undignified on a state visit or — worse — endorsing an Apple product.
Similarly, every phase of Peng’s day with Obama has been carefully negotiated and will be teased apart for meaning, including their sartorial choices.
Peng drew Vanity Fair’s interest by wearing a tailored, double-breasted black coat, handbag and chunky heels on a trip to Russia last year. She has also often selected Chinese labels, doing for her country’s fashion industry what Michelle Obama has done for U.S. designers.
“Peng Liyuan presents a sophisticated image of Chinese women to the world,” says Vogue China editor-in-chief Angelica Cheung. “Her penchant for Chinese designers makes her a great ambassador for domestic fashion brands, but, more than that, she has changed the widespread notion that maybe Chinese people only care about logos.”
Hong Huang, one of the most influential figures on China’s fashion scene and publisher of the lifestyle magazine iLook, is watching for the ways Obama and Peng use their frocks to send messages during this visit. Will Obama wear Jason Wu, a young Chinese American designer who is among her favorites? Will Peng don a more traditional style of dress?
“From the fashion perspective, Michelle Obama is high-profile,” Hong says. “She chooses red, black; these primary colors show she is bold and flamboyant, which is quite American. Peng Liyuan’s fashion choice is . . . light gray, dark green — these pale tones subtly imply a low-key Chinese style. These are two different means of expression of the two countries, and the different standards of beauty: China is reserved, and the U.S. is direct.”
Somewhere in the back of both women’s minds must linger the tensions between their two nations, both prime powers competing in the global economy. And even if they are not thinking about it, others are feeling competitive as they await the Obama-Peng meeting on the world stage.
Some early comments on China’s version of Twitter, called Weibo, declare “Michelle Obama is defeated” in a reference to their unofficial style matchup.
In the United States, Pamela Edwards Christiani, the style and beauty director of Essence magazine, sees no contest either — with Obama coming out on top, of course. Obama’s financial impact on the fashion industry has already been credited with boosting revenue by billions of dollars across several brands she has chosen to wear, Christiani notes.
The first lady of the United States enjoys a different kind of advantage. “It could be a little awkward,” Christiani says of the photo-ops with the first ladies because of their differences in height. “I hope they get a step for the Chinese first lady.”
Otherwise, Christiani says, Obama will tower over her.
Liu Liu and GuJinglu contributed to this report.