A photograph of China’s new first lady, Peng Liyuan (彭麗媛), in her younger days, singing to martial law troops following the 1989 bloody military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, flickered across Chinese cyberspace last week.
It was swiftly removed from China’s Internet before it could generate discussion online. However, the image — seen and shared by outside observers — revived a memory the leadership prefers to suppress and shows one of the challenges in presenting Peng on the world stage as the softer side of China.
The country has no recent precedent for the role of first lady and faces a tricky balance at home. The leadership wants Peng to show the human side of the new Chinese President and Chinese Communist Party (CPP) General Secretary, Xi Jinping (習近平), while not exposing too many perks of the elite. It must also balance popular support for the first couple, with an acute wariness of personality cults that could skew the consensus rule among the CCP top leaders.
The image of Peng, wearing a green military uniform, her windswept hair tied back in a ponytail as she sings to helmeted and rifle-bearing troops seated in rows on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, contrasts with her appearances last week in trendy suits and coiffed hair while touring Russia and Africa with Xi, waving to her enthusiastic hosts.
“I think that we have a lot of people hoping that because Xi Jinping walks around without a tie on and his wife is a singer who travels with him on trips that maybe we’re dealing with a new kind of leader, but I think these images remind people that this is the same party,” said Kelley Currie, a China human rights expert for the pro-democracy Project 2049 Institute in Arlington, Virginia.
“It’s using some new tools and new techniques, for the same purposes: to preserve its own power,” she said.
Peng, 50, a major general in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) who is best known for soaring renditions of patriotic odes to the military and the party, kept a low profile in recent years as her husband prepared to take over as CCP leader. Her re-emergence has been accompanied by a blitz in domestic, state-run media hailing her beauty and charm, in a bid to harness her popularity to build support for Xi at home and abroad.
“Peng Liyuan: Let the world appreciate the beauty of China,” read the headline of a China News Service commentary which said that the first lady’s elegant manners, conversation and clothing would highlight Chinese culture.
Her presence on diplomatic trips would demystify the first family for the Chinese public, the commentary added.
However, the government is stepping into little-charted, and possibly treacherous, waters for China.
In 1963, the glamorous Wang Guangmei (王光美), wife of then-Chinese president Liu Shaoqi (劉少奇), wore a tightfitting Chipao dress to a state banquet in Indonesia. When the political tides turned against Liu four years later, radical Red Guards forced Wang to don the same dress and paraded her through the streets as a shameful example of capitalist corruption.
Revolutionary leader Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) wife, Jiang Qing (江青), played a key role in the same radical campaign in which political opponents were mercilessly persecuted; after his death, she was put on trial and imprisoned, then moved to a hospital where she hung herself.