When the East meets the West: Peng Liyuan, First Lady of China

She is a famous singer, a World Health Organization goodwill ambassador in the fight against tuberculosis and HIV as well as one of the most powerful women in the world following Forbes. Peng Liyuan is also the First Lady of China and a crucial actor in her husband’s, President Xi Jinping, political communication.

Western influence…

  • Introduction of new rules of the political communication

Until the arrival of Xi Jinping at the Presidency, China’s politics, like those of other communist countries, was symbolised by the myth of the lonely leader. He was male and never accompanied by a woman. This particular image reflected a situation in which despite a strong propaganda placing women in its heart and a discourse about their importance in the building of country’s greatness, women were supposed to keep a low profile.

Xi Jinping revolutionized the public image of a Chinese leader. He borrowed Western codes of political marketing based on a strong personification and emotionalisation of the discourse. In this particular model, the wife plays an important role, as he can soften her husband’s image and attract attention of the public eye. Xi put thus a strong spotlight on his wife, Peng Liyuan.

To be honest, the task was not difficult to accomplish. Peng was already a famous singer and a celebrity in China. Accordingly, she was already in the center of public interest, not only in the country about also abroad. When in 2014 the presidential couple went to India with an official State visit, the media were more interested in Peng rather than in her powerful husband.

  • Place of women in the society

Peng’s public actions do not influence solely her husband’s image, they also shape an international imaginary about Chinese women. In consequence, the fact that she is successful, engaged in humanitarian projects and with a strong fashion sense, plays a positive role in this “branding”.

Nevertheless, Peng’s model of First Ladyship also displays some gender inequalities. Although the current situation of women improved significantly, the society is still male dominated. A woman can thus have a career, as long as she supports the one of her husband. Peng, despite her huge popularity, established more than two decades ago, decided to stop singing (with exception made to some prestigious events, such as the Chinese New Year Eve Concert) and support her husband’s career instead of her own one.

… Eastern traditional path

  • Cult of personality

Despite this superficial westernalisation of the public image building, in reality methods of media pressuring did not evolved. It was denounced that Internet in China is still censored and several media controlled by the State. Some analysts announced even the return of the cult of personality. Like in Mao’s time, images of Xi are everywhere (it is without saying that only positive ones), however this time his wife is next to him.

  • Family model

Despite the image of modernity and openess to new realities, Peng in fact participates in transmitting traditional values about the couple and the family as the base of the Chinese society. In December 2014, a song called “Xi dada loves Peng mama” and paying tribute to the First couple, went viral. Its author, who was invited after by various media, explained that Xi and Peng should be example for young couples who are shifting toward new models of the family.

  • Staging of China’s grandeur

Last but not least, the First couple of China transmits an important international message: China is an important actor on the international stage, however it has its own way to reach success. The country is presented thus as prosperous and stable, with a strong international presence, yet nationalist and respecting its own culture and habits.

Moreover, the few concerts given by Peng since 2013 are also used as political tools. They are meant to emphasize another aspect of the country’s greatness: its diversity. In her shows, Peng Liyuan, often wearing a military costume (she is Dean of the People’s Libertaion Army, corresponding to civilian major general) is surrounded by dancers and singers wearing traditional cloths of the 52 recognized minorities in China. Those performances, usually retransmitted by prestigious CCTV New Year’s Gala, are aimed to forge the image of the country’s unity and harmony between various peoples inhabiting Middle Kingdom.

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