The lifespan of Peng’s Tiananmen image in the finicky world of the Chinese Internet has so far been short and she remains a beloved household name with huge domestic popularity. The photograph has circulated mainly on Twitter, which is blocked in China. The few posts on popular domestic microblogs did not evade censors for long.
Many young Chinese are unaware that on June 3 and 4, 1989, military troops crushed weeks long pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing with force, killing hundreds, possibly thousands, of people. Those who do know about the assault tend to be understanding of Peng’s obligations as a member of a performance troupe in the all-powerful PLA. At the time, her husband Xi was party chief of an eastern city.
“The photo probably has a negative impact more so internationally than domestically,” said Joseph Cheng (鄭宇碩), a political scientist at City University of Hong Kong.
He said more scrutiny of Peng is likely and such images could raise questions about Xi’s interest in reforms.
“It has been several months now that Xi Jinping has assumed the top leadership role and certainly, we have found no indicator that he is interested at this stage to push serious political reform,” Cheng said.
The image is a snapshot of the back cover of a 1989 issue of a publicly available military magazine, the PLA Pictorial, according to Sun Li, a Chinese reporter who said he had taken a photo of it on his cellphone several years ago when it was inadvertently posted on his microblog.
Sun said he quickly deleted it and had no idea how it resurfaced on the Internet years later.
Microblog users can easily save images and recirculate them even after the original posts have been deleted. The picture spread further after it was tweeted by the US-based China Digital Times, which tracks Chinese online media.
Warren Sun (孫萬國), a Chinese military historian at Monash University in Australia, said he had little doubt about the authenticity of the image, citing a 1992 academic report as saying that after the crackdown, Peng performed a song titled The Most Beloved People in a salute to martial law troops.
While most of her army career has been in singing, the militaristic overtones of many of Peng’s public appearances set her apart from US first lady Michelle Obama, former French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and most of their counterparts in other countries.
However, for Peng, the Tiananmen photo was no one-off: She has been in the military since age 18 and has fronted TV music videos featuring dancing lines of men with combat fatigues and heavy weaponry.
She also starred in a song-and-dance number in 2007 that has perky women in Tibetan garb sashaying behind her, while she sings an ode to the army that invaded Tibet in 1959.
“Who is going to liberate us? It’s the dear PLA,” go some of the lyrics.
The video has provoked severe criticism from Tibetan rights groups.
In an indication of Peng’s appeal in China despite her past, a man whose 19-year-old son was killed in the Tiananmen crackdown said he bears no grudges against her.
“If I had known about this back then, I would have been very disgusted by it, but now, looking at it objectively, it’s all in the past,” said Wang Fandi, whose son Wang Nan died from a bullet wound to his head. “She was in the establishment. If the military wanted her to perform, she had to go. What else could she do?”