Peng Liyuan: the ‘Kate Middleton’ effect of China’s new first lady
By Malcolm Moore, Beijing: Footage of Peng Liyuan, 49, simply dressed in a black coat and light blue scarf triggered first lady fever in the Chinese media and on the internet.
Mrs Peng, a Chinese folk singer and major-general in the Chinese army who sings for the People’s Liberation Army, is arguably just as famous in China as her husband, Xi Jinping, who was inaugurated as president two weeks ago.
“Now is the end of our quest for a graceful first lady,” wrote the deputy editor of the Hong Kong Commercial Daily newspaper on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.
The Beijing News ran a full page of stories about Mrs Peng’s itinerary in Moscow, alongside a photograph of her arriving at a speech dressed in an elegant Chinese-style silk tunic and skirt.
“In her role as first lady on this visit abroad, Peng Liyuan is exhibiting China’s soft power,” Wang Fan, head of the Institute of International Relations at China Foreign Affairs University, told the newspaper.
The footage of her in Moscow quickly caused something akin to the “Kate Middleton effect”, with copies of her coat instantly appearing on Taobao, an online shopping site, for 499 yuan (£53) – and advertised as “in the same style as the first lady’s”.
“Her shoes are really classic, and who designed her bag?” wrote another user on Weibo. In fact, the black leather clutch she carried was made to order by a Chinese firm in the southwestern city of Chengdu.
The excitement over Mrs Peng comes after 20 years of China’s first ladies keeping a very discreet profile.
Liu Yongqing, the wife of the former president Hu Jintao, rarely appeared in public. Wang Yeping, the wife of Mr Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin, also usually stayed behind the scenes.
The couple flew out of Moscow to Tanzania and will then go on to South Africa and Congo. During the trip, Mrs Peng, who works on tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS outreach for the World Health Organisation, is expected to be involved in other public events.
Mrs Peng met Mr Xi, 59, through a mutual friend when he was working as the deputy mayor of the eastern city of Xiamen in 1986. Mr Xi had been briefly married before to the daughter of the Chinese ambassador to Britain.
At first, she said she was unimpressed with Mr Xi because he looked “rustic and old”. The pair are separated in age by a decade. However, she later concluded he was “really intelligent”.
“When he comes home, I’ve never thought of it as though there’s some leader in the house,” she said in an interview with a Chinese magazine in 2007. “In my eyes, he’s just my husband.”
A picture taken the year after they met showed them posing in front of a temple on Dongshan island in Fujian and Mrs Peng has said Mr Xi likes swimming and mountain climbing and sometimes stays up at night to watch sport on television.