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Last updated: March 13, 2013 6:45 pm
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 cracking 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 people who effectively controlled the country 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 in China. But Xi Jinping, who is set to assume full power on Thursday 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 on the internet about how we now finally 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 traumatic historical experience of figures like Jiang Qing has imprinted on the party the lesson that politics and family don’t mix – at least not in public.
Deng Xiaoping, the politician who led the country out of Mao’s constant political struggles and towards reform and opening, and his successor Jiang Zemin rarely took their wives on overseas visits. Hu Jintao, who steps down on Thursday, 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 behind the scenes following China’s market reforms. Wen Jiabao, the premier who will step down this Friday, was always careful to keep his wife, a jewellery expert, out of the limelight as her extensive 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 reminded many in the party 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. As the Chinese armed forces used music and theatre performances to agitate peasants during the revolution, being a civilian PLA member is not unusual for folk singers.
For many years, Ms Peng was one of the highlights of state broadcaster CCTV’s annual lunar new year gala, the country’s biggest entertainment event. Videos of her singing songs 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 among the favourites of the older generation.
Since Mr Xi’s ascent to the Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s centre of political power, in 2007, Ms Peng has markedly lowered her profile. She has stopped all commercial performances.
But there were already signs of a higher profile: In 2011, Ms Peng 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 much more than that. “Having the first lady emerge from behind the scenes and step up to centre stage is a good thing. 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 in no time 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. Foreign government officials, diplomats and company executives who have met him say with relief that they can connect to him in a way they never could with the stiff Mr Hu.
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 that he has feelings, that he has family, that he is a human being.”
Additional reporting by Zhao Tianqi
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