Is Xi’s Wife a New Kind of First Lady?

NPR’s Louisa Lim profiles Peng Liyuan – the wife of new Chinese leader Xi Jinping, one of China’s most famous singers, and an AIDS activist – and explores whether she will pull out of the public spotlight now that her husband has ascended to the top:

In June 2011, she stepped up her role, becoming a World Health Organization ambassador for tuberculosis and AIDS — even as her husband was heading for the top. Hood says it would be a loss of face for her to step down now. But China’s first ladies have traditionally played a supporting role not much seen in public. So could China be paving the way for a new kind of first lady?

“I really do hope so,” Hood says. “[Peng] is an incredibly talented woman. She’s very well-educated, she speaks well, she’s knowledgeable, she’s powerful. And she’s one of the perfect people to pave the way for a new role model.”

But there is official nervousness about Peng already. Her name has become a forbidden search term on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, and several online stories about her have been deleted recently.

Given China’s recent history, Peng’s cultural and artistic background doesn’t necessarily work in her favor. The last high-profile spouse in recent memory was Madame Mao — or Jiang Qing — the wife of Chairman Mao Zedong who dictated the country’s cultural life for a decade, limiting cultural fare to a series of “revolutionary operas” and “revolutionary songs.”

Jiang was subsequently blamed for the decade-long Cultural Revolution, and sentenced to a suspended death sentence as a member of the “Gang of Four.” She committed suicide in prison in 1991, but her legacy is one that hangs over all subsequent first ladies, consigning them to the background.

Most have assumed that Peng would take on a more subdued role during Xi’s tenure as China’s leader, and Newsweek’s Melinda Liu writes that she has scaled back her profile ever since her husband was tagged as the Communist Party’s heir apparent:

In that sense, Peng, despite her celebrity status, is no different from previous political wives in post-Mao China who have largely shunned the limelight. This trend partly reflects a visceral backlash against the toxic legacy of Mao Zedong’s last wife, Jiang Qing, a former B-grade Shanghai starlet who has been blamed for the bloody excesses of China’s Cultural Revolution. It also partly reflects a longstanding Chinese tradition, which discourages women from dabbling in politics. “In ancient times, the empress was never allowed to cultivate her own supporters,” said Li Yinhe, a sociologist and gender studies expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. “And communist culture hasn’t given official roles to first ladies.”

Peng has yet to appear in public since Xi was annointed earlier this month as China’s new leader; there was no highly publicized “victory embrace” between China’s new power couple, like the one Americans witnessed between Barack and Michelle Obama. Yet ordinary Chinese like the Xi-Peng narrative, especially her admission that Xi knew he wanted to marry her just 40 minutes after they met—even though her parents initially opposed the match. “They married for love; it wasn’t arranged. And that’s romantic,” says Li. “Communist cadres are often seen as robotlike, but Peng is warmly accepted by people.” That acceptance has bolstered Xi’s popularity at a time of considerable uncertainty in China. Perhaps politics in the East and West aren’t so different after all.



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