“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.