China’s Next First Lady a Challenge for Image Makers

As a famous singer and goodwill ambassador for the World Health Organisation, Peng Liyuan might seem a perfect first lady to China’s next president Xi Jinping. But this picture is complicated by an AIDS scandal involving incoming prime minister Li Keqiang and a tradition of women, from Daji through Jiang Qing to Gu Kailai, being seen as a corrupting influence over powerful men. From Julie Makinen at The Los Angeles Times:

She has a resume that would make U.S. political consultants drool: A renowned soprano who’s performed for troops serving the motherland, opera fans at Lincoln Center and ordinary Chinese watching annual TV variety galas, she’s also a World Health Organization goodwill ambassador in the fight against tuberculosis and HIV.

[…] “As a new leader, you always should give some kind of freshness to the public. You need to uplift the public confidence, and it’s really quite low in the wake of the Bo Xilai scandal and the economic slowdown,” said Cheng Li, a China expert at the Brookings Institution. “Xi needs to do a lot himself, but with a beautiful, popular first lady, this kind of image could be very helpful.”

[…] Johanna Hood, a postdoctoral fellow at Australian National University who has studied Peng’s public health work, noted that activism around AIDS in China can be seen as both supporting the government and implicitly criticizing its response to the disease.

“I imagine it became a bit awkward with the rise of Xi Jinping. If you look at her language, how she talks about it — she says ‘it appeals to my motherly instincts; my child had such a good upbringing, and so I must do something’ — that rounds off some of the political edges of it,” Hood said. “But just being involved in AIDS activism is a political statement, and I imagine that the people who deal with her public image are grappling with that.”

John Garnaut dug into Xi’s own background and career at Foreign Policy (via CDT) last week, while on Sunday CDT’s Mengyu Dong examined women’s standing in college admissions, at state-owned enterprises and soon, perhaps, on the Politburo Standing Committee. For a glimpse of Peng’s star power, see her rendition of the classic Red Song, Laundry Song, via High Peaks Pure Earth: