China’s photogenic “first lady” Peng Liyuan (彭麗媛) played steel drums in Trinidad, strolled hand-in-hand with a coffee farmer’s daughter in Costa Rica and snapped pictures with her iPhone in the shadow of Mayan ruins in Mexico.
However, the glamorous and popular wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) stepped out of the spotlight for two days in California while her husband held unprecedented informal talks with US President Barack Obama at a lush retreat in the desert on the last leg of a four-country trip.
Peng, a singer who many Chinese say was far more famous than Xi before he became a top leader, has decisively broken the mold of Chinese first wives who have kept an intentionally low profile since the 1970s.
They have kept a low profile because of the experience of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) wife, Jiang Qing (江青), who was given a suspended death sentence in 1981 for her role in the deaths of thousands during the Cultural Revolution.
Many in China expected to see more of her in California and hoped that she would have a chance to interact with US first lady Michelle Obama, but Mrs Obama’s decision to stay in Washington with her daughters rather than meet the Chinese first couple sidelined Peng to some extent.
US officials said it had been made clear to the Chinese side early on that a scheduling conflict would prevent Michelle Obama from the summit at the Sunnylands estate near Palm Springs, but the US first lady did make a gesture.
“Mrs Obama wrote a letter to Madame Peng welcoming her to the United States. The first lady said she regretted missing her this weekend, but hopes to have the chance to visit China and meet Madame Peng sometime soon,” a White House official said.
Still, the absence set the Chinese blogosphere and some Chinese media outlets alight with speculation, anger, pride and jokes.
It was an “arrogant show of fear of inferiority” which caused Michelle Obama not to meet Peng and an insult to the Chinese people, an opinion piece carried by the semi-official China News Service said.
On microblogging site Sina Weibo, several commentators took their own stabs as to why Michelle avoided California.
“She was afraid of Mama Peng’s charm. How shameful that the aura of the First Lady of the world’s superpower can’t beat that of the First Lady of developing China,” wrote a user with the handle Chiki_Wang.
Despite the low profile, US National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon said Peng did join Obama and Xi for tea on Saturday before the Chinese couple departed. It lasted about a half hour.
Peng stepped into the limelight in her new role as first lady in March, the same month that Xi became president, when she accompanied him to Russia and Africa. She became an instant Internet sensation back home.
Chinese first wives have occasionally appeared in photographs when traveling abroad with their husbands. Most have appeared frumpy and awkward, though, and none of Peng’s predecessors stretching back to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 could be described as glamorous.
By contrast, Peng’s easy, casual and fun demeanor were on full display once again on the earlier leg of Xi’s trip. She has also been trying out her English, which sources with ties to the leadership told reporters she has been learning.