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A starring role or the chorus line for China's incoming first lady?

Video If popularity is the aim for China's next president he has the ultimate weapon at his disposal - his famous wife Peng Liyuan.
Incoming first lady Peng Liyuan is one of China's biggest stars, but the political system has seen politicians wive's take a low profile in politics.
Incoming first lady Peng Liyuan is one of China's biggest stars, but the political system has seen politicians wive's take a low profile in politics.

BEIJING //Last week in his inaugural speech, China's incoming president won rare praise for his warm, relaxed manner.

It was, as many pointed out, as if he has grasped that his job would be easier if people liked him - a thought that never really seemed to occur to his predecessor.

Well, if popularity is his aim, he has the ultimate weapon at his disposal - his wife.

Peng Liyuan, 49, is one of China's biggest stars: a former folk singer in the People's Liberation Army who was the headline act of a New Year TV variety show, the most watched programme in China, for more than 20 years.

To Chinese who grew up in the eighties and nineties, she remains a widely popular, glamorous, sexy, girl next door. She is also blessed with a soaring, crystalline soprano and hails from good proletarian stock.

She would, in short, make a perfect first lady.

After years of portraying blushing Tibetan shepherdesses, revolutionary fighters and scheming empresses on stage, the question is whether she takes up that role.

Recent history suggests she will not. The wives of all of China leaders since Mao Zedong have kept such low profiles that most members of the public would struggle to name them.

They play no role in domestic politics and, on the few occasions they have accompanied their husbands abroad, they have engaged in philanthropic or cultural activities, as first ladies of other nations often do on state visits.

Part of the reason for their low profile, experts say, is the political system. The county's leaders are not elected by popular vote so there is no need to involve spouses to round out their image.



On a more profound level, however, there is a strong cultural bias against women and proximity to political power.

This belief was most recently reinforced by the downfall of the politburo member Bo Xilai, whose wife was found guilty of murdering the British businessman Neil Heywood earlier this year. Mr Bo awaits trial on related charges.

"It goes right back to the Empress Dowager (who ran China for the last 47 years of the Ching Dynasty), people think that if a women is given power there will be trouble," say Zhang Lijia, a writer and social commentator in Beijing.

"There are still people who think that Mao's wife Jiang Qing alone was responsible for the Cultural Revolution," she said, referring to the violent anti-bourgeois and anti-intellectual campaigns unleashed by Mao and his wife in the late sixties.

Unlike these women, Ms Peng does not derive power of popularity from her husband. When in 2008 it became clear he was being tipped for the presidency, few Chinese people had any idea who he was.

A joke at the time went like this: "Who is Xi Jinping? Oh, he is Peng Liyuan's husband."

Since then, however, Ms Peng has reduced her public profile. She stopped performing in the New Year variety show and, when she does appear at government or charitable functions, she opts for military dress rather than the elaborate ball gowns she favoured in the past.

Censors have also scrubbed many of her early interviews from the internet, and her name - like that of other leader's wives - is blocked online.

The articles that have survived are bland and portray Mr Xi as a selfless public servant and her as a dutiful wife and mother to a daughter.

In recent years, she has also sent more time working on philanthropic projects, such as government health campaigns.

Last year, she was appointed a World Heath Organisation goodwill ambassador for tuberculosis and HIV/Aids and, earlier this year, she joined forces with the Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates, to launch a worldwide anti-smoking campaign.

Yet it remains to be seen if she will be able to carry on with this work because of the political sensitivities around it. China's incoming Premier, Li Keqiang, was governor of Henan province during an Aids epidemic in the late 90s as a result of poor people selling their blood and being infected by dirty needles.

"To be safe, she usually frames her involvement with HIV more in terms of something that she feels obliged to do as a mother and as a public figure and role model," says Johanna Hood, a postdoctoral fellow at Australian National University who has studied Ms Peng's public health work.

Yet there is a possibility that government and Mr Xi will see the value of allowing Ms Peng to continue with her health work and even to develop a role as first lady - at least in some circumstances.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political-science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, point outs that Ms Peng, who is said to be fluent in English, allows Mr Xi and the government to project a more modern image.

"Peng could help Xi with his international image. Obviously he is not going to get her to go around the world singing, but she would shine at dinner at the White House."

Published: November 19, 2012 04:00 AM

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