For China’s next first lady, a lowered profile

November 10, 2012

Next week, when her husband is expected to be introduced as China’s new leader, Peng Liyuan will probably be out of sight.

Her image won’t be splashed across any front pages; her name is likely to go unmentioned on state-run TV’s breathless coverage of China’s once-a-decade leadership transition.

Such is the fate of first ladies in China.

No Michelle Obama-style advocacy. Nor Jackie Kennedy-like glamour. Simply the expectation that one will fade into the black cloak of secrecy that surrounds all of China’s leaders.

And yet if anyone could break free of that muted tradition, it would be Peng, one of China’s most recognizable folk singers.

For most of her marriage to China’s current vice president, Xi Jinping, her fame has eclipsed his. A civilian member of the Chinese army’s musicale troupe, she was admired by hundreds of millions for her annual performances on state television’s New Year’s Eve shows. 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.

“If this were the West, one would say she has the perfect requirements for being a leader’s wife: beauty, stage presence, public approval,” said one party intellectual, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing his work teaching future government officials at party schools. “But things are different in China.”

Here, the names of top leaders’ wives are blocked on search engines and censored from micro­blogs. Even the most innocuous articles about them are often scrubbed from existence.

It all stems from a traditional Chinese fear of women in politics, said Hung Huang, a fashion editor whose mother served as English tutor to Mao Zedong, the country’s first Communist leader.

“In China, unfortunately, women and power mix like oil and water,” she said. “You see it in some of our traditional proverbs warning against the dangers of beautiful women and powerful men.”

No one embodied those fears more than Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, whose grab for power, purge from the party and death by suicide remains a cautionary tale taught in middle schools across China.

The latest example emerged this year with Gu Kailai — wife of purged Communist leader Bo Xilai — who was depicted at her murder trial as an emotional, paranoid and scheming woman who poisoned a British businessman.

Out of the spotlight

Against that stereotype, vibrant, positive female role models in China’s political world are sorely lacking.

Few people even know the name of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s wife, Liu Yongqing, and even fewer could point her out in a crowd.

Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin, occasionally took his wife, Wang Yeping, on trips abroad, but little is known about her beyond a smattering of details gathered by media overseas, beyond the reach of censors.

Following suit, Peng, 49, began lowering her own profile as a singer 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 1990s, she quit the annual New Year’s show altogether the next year and stopped performing except for at a handful of charity and Communist Party-related events.

She now rarely is seen with Xi, 59, and never talks about her husband of more than 20 years in public.

At the same time, she has taken 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. Last year, she was appointed ambassador for the fight against tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS for the World Health Organization.

“She doesn’t keep her distance from people,” said Zhang Ying, president of a non-governmental organization that helps AIDS orphans in Anhui province. Zhang has worked on the issue repeatedly with Peng, most recently in September, and described her as down-to-earth, chatting freely with other volunteers about her own daughter, asking questions about their families. She was also a patient woman, Zhang said, entertaining orphans with songs during the difficult filming of public-service announcements.

A chef in Zhejiang province — whose restaurant Peng often frequented while Xi was that region’s party chief — recalled how long Peng waited on her first visit, arriving without a reservation. She had dressed down, making her harder to recognize.

“She didn’t know reservations were required, so there were no tables free,” he said. “One word to the waiters that she was the wife of a party secretary and she would have had a table, but she never mentioned it,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because talking about top leaders’ families in China is discouraged. “Later, she also came with her parents and her daughter, but never together with her husband.”

Background stories lacking

Few articles have been written about her relationship with Xi, and the ones that have survived censors often detail them in sickly sweet Communist caricature: hardworking husband torn between duty to country and to family; his supportive, caring wife eager to be with him but knowing her country needs him more.

One such interview — the most in-depth so far on the topic — was posted online in 2006 by a small, local state-run media group, without the permission of central authorities, according to a media official within the party, speaking anonymously to detail internal decisions.

In that article, which has since been scrubbed from many Web sites, Peng described their first date in 1986 and how she deliberately wore ugly army trousers to see if Xi would be attracted to her personality rather than her looks.

Instead of asking her about popular songs or her earnings as a music star, she said, he veered toward the philosophical: “How many different techniques are there for singing?”

“I was moved at that time. ‘Isn’t he the one I want in my heart? He has a simple heart but is thoughtful,’ ” she said in the interview, noting that Xi also later told her, “I recognized that you were the one to be my wife less than 40 minutes after we met.”

Such media appeal and Peng’s ease at handling the spotlight after decades as a singer could give her husband a boost on trips abroad, experts say.

“It’s a terrific thing for China to have someone with that glamour, culture and prominence representing them abroad,” said Robert Kuhn, author of “How China’s Leaders Think.” “It humanizes China a little and breaks them out of that stereotype of the stiff, gray soviet suits behind a podium.”

How she will play domestically, however, is less clear.

“To be honest, I don’t know how much she’ll be able to reverse pressure of tradition and take on a more prominent first-wife role,” one former party official said. “Leaders may think the risk is too great and the benefit domestically limited. After all, our leaders aren’t elected, so it’s not like the West where a spouse is needed to boost approval ratings.”

Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

William Wan is The Post’s China correspondent based in Beijing. He served previously as a religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent.
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