China has a real first lady, now Peng Liyuan joined president Xi Jinping on his first travels abroad. Author Paul French looks in the Foreign Policy Magazine at the new feature in how China’s leadership is presenting herself to the world.
One thing Peng [Liyuan] should not expect: a shoutout from her husband. China’s political leaders rarely, if ever, engage in the pro-forma Western cliches of publicly thanking their spouses or family (or God) for their success. In the Beijing lexicon, the party stands in for mother, lover, and omnipotent power. “The Chinese people” sometimes get a nod of thanks, but mentioning home life would be unthinkable for a Chinese politician. And Mrs. Xi shouldn’t expect to be allowed to say much, either, despite her celebrity: The days when Madames Sun and Chiang would sit next to their husbands and engage the foreign press corps in banter are not about to restart, not least because Chinese leaders don’t really give interviews to the foreign press these days.
But Mrs. Xi might turn out to be different: She is confident and media-savvy, as witnessed by her close proximity to her husband at photo-ops and clearly thought-out and well-prepared outfits. She has yet to speak publicly — perhaps she never will — but her prominent visual image in and of itself indicates that Peng will be more like Madames Sun and Chiang than her immediate predecessors. This may well be the first Chinese administration since 1949 that successfully harnesses and exploits the soft power potential of a first lady.
Welcome on stage, Mrs. Xi.
At the China Weekly Hangout, last Thursday Steve Barru and Fons Tuinstra discussed a few of the expected political reforms under Xi Jinping. You can find all our Hangouts here. Coming Thursday the China Weekly Hangout will discuss solar energy, fail or future, after the debacle of Suntech. You can register here, or read our announcement here.
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