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Charm offensive: Peng Liyuan, China's glamorous new First Lady

By Jaime A. FlorCruz, CNN
updated 9:57 AM EDT, Mon March 25, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peng Liyuan, wife of China's new president Xi Jinping, made her debut as China's First Lady
  • She is a popular soprano, widely known in China for her soaring, glass-breaking voice
  • Chinese analysts think Peng can similarly help burnish China's image overseas
  • "Our only concern is, she might unintentionally upstage our No. 1 leader"

Editor's note: "Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and was TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing (CNN) -- China's new First Lady is poised to impress--and burnish China's image overseas.

Peng Liyuan, wife of China's new president Xi Jinping, made her debut as China's First Lady this week accompanying Xi in his first overseas trip as China's new state president.

Wearing a belted overcoat, accented by a stand-up collar and a light-blue scarf, she stood next to Xi when they arrived in Moscow, the first stop of Xi's three-nation trip.

Smiling radiantly, she shook hands with the Russian hosts, a step or two behind her husband.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan get off the plane at Vnukovo airport outside Moscow on March 22.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan get off the plane at Vnukovo airport outside Moscow on March 22.

"We've always looked forward to having an elegant First Lady that's presentable to the outside world," a Chinese official told me. "Now we have one."

Many Chinese are similarly enthused.: "The U.S. has Michelle (Obama), we have Peng Liyuan," wrote micro-blogger @mlxftmilixiaofantuan.

Peng, 51, hardly needs help when it comes to public relations.

She is a popular soprano, widely known in China for her soaring, glass-breaking voice and patriotic folk songs.

Her top hits include "People from Our Village" and "On the Plains of Hope."

Will she be as good a First Lady as she is a soprano?

"Of course," the Chinese official replied. "She looks elegant, she is a successful professional and she comes from a modest background."

Peng was born to a family of artists in Shandong Province. Her mother was a member of a local art troupe; her father was a curator of local museum.

In a TV talk-show interview a few years ago, Peng recalled the time when as a child she first saw a camera brought home by her father, who refused to take her picture because the camera was "state-owned," not a family property.

Later, her uncle secretly took her picture that became her only childhood portrait.

At age 14, Peng enrolled at a local university of art and design. Four years later, she joined the arts troupe of the People's Liberation Army as a soprano.

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She holds a master's degree in traditional ethnic music and now serves as the dean of the Art Academy of the People's Liberation Army. She holds the rank of a major general.

Peng became a superstar in 1983, when she sang in the first Lunar New Year's TV extravaganza, broadcast nationwide by state-owned China Central Television (CCTV).

The gala show was big hit and has since become the most watched and lucratively sponsored TV show in China, comparable to the annual Superbowl in the United States.

Peng had performed in the annual TV gala show almost every year until 2007, when Xi was promoted into the top-tier of the Communist Party, making him the presumptive paramount leader of China.

Peng quietly faded from public view.

She has taken up charity-related positions with limited exposure. In those roles, political analysts say, Peng has helped soften Xi Jinping's public image.

She became an ambassador for tobacco control in 2009. Last year, she was appointed as the ambassador for the fight against tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS for the World Health Organization, an initiative aided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Chinese analysts think Peng can similarly help burnish China's image overseas by projecting a softer touch.

"I believe Peng has the prerequisites and the ability to contribute to China's diplomacy," said Liu Guchang, a former ambassador to Russia.

Still, the idea of a high-profile Chinese First Lady conjures the ghost of Jiang Qing, Chairman Mao's fourth wife.

A film starlet who later rose to the pinnacle of political power during the Cultural Revolution, Jiang was often depicted as an Iron Lady who rode on the coattails of her omnipotent husband.

Before she was arrested and jailed in the late 1970s, Jiang Qing was the high-profile cultural czar during the last years of Chairman Mao's rule.

She sat in the elite communist party politburo and served as the final arbiter of political correctness in China's art and culture.

I had never met Jiang Qing, but I do remember seeing her inside Beijing's Capital Theater one night in November 1971, when we watched the "Red Detachment of Women," a revolution-themed ballet she had co-produced.

A few minutes before the show started, the theater lights dimmed and a group of VIPs took the front seats. She was one of them, it turned out. All through the show, I saw her giving show-related instructions to the officials beside her.

We've always looked forward to having an elegant First Lady ... now we have one
Chinese official

In contrast to Jiang Qing, China's First Ladies in the 1980s and 90's kept a low public profile.

Deng Xiaoping's wife, Zhuo Lin, stayed in the background even when she accompanied Deng during his travels in and outside China.

Wang Yeping rarely tagged along Chinese president Jiang Zemin, in part because of her frail health.

Liu Yongqing, wife of former president Hu Jintao, rarely appeared — and almost never spoke — in public, even inside China.

Many Chinese expect Peng Liyuan to break the old mold.

"Her human touch will get Xi closer to the people," wrote microblogger @Laiyingutou. "Compared to former first ladies in China, she will definitely get more attention."

Li Yinhe, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said the Communist Party would be wise to use Peng as a "soft weapon" at home and abroad.

"If people see that Xi has such a beautiful wife, it would make the (communist) party seem more human and less robotic," she told the New York Times.

Still, Peng's fans have one slight worry. "Our only concern is, she might unintentionally upstage our No. 1 leader," said one.

CNN's Feng Ke in Beijing contributed to this report

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