News Column

China's First Lady Breaks the Mold

March 27, 2013
Peng Liyuan

Like the Guangzhou-based fashion brand Exception that she favors, superstar singer and new first lady Peng Liyuan is blazing an elegant trail unheard of for wives of Chinese Communist Party presidents.

Peng, 50, is traveling with husband Xi Jinping, the Communist Party chief, on his four-nation tour, stepping out in stylish attire and accessories. It's quite a contrast to her dowdy, barely seen and never-heard predecessors who were kept firmly in the background by the Communist Party propaganda machine.

Back home, Peng is attracting more attention than Xi's official meetings and speeches.

Her sudden high profile is unusual in China, where for decades secrecy has cloaked the families of top leaders. It also marks a return to the spotlight for Peng, who had retreated from public life to avoid complicating the party's choreographed leadership transition to Xi, 59.

Even so, she arguably remains more famous in China than her husband. Peng is a well-known folk singer in China, a soprano with the rank of major general in the People's Liberation Army's arts troupe. During her three-decade career, Peng could be seen often performing on state television -- both in military uniform and dramatic dresses.

"It's great for China's image worldwide, as Peng is already a public figure, knows how to keep up appearances, and will make quite an impact," said Wang Qi, a shopper browsing clothes Tuesday at the Exception de Mixmind store in Beijing's upscale China World Mall.

"She's not just a wife but can make a contribution to China, too. It's her biggest-ever role," said Wang, 50. "Like the first ladies of the USA or U.K., she can promote charity work."

Peng's appeal is obvious, said Cai Hong, 33, a magazine reporter at Beijing's Modern Weekly, also window-shopping at Exception because of its newfound fame.

"She's beautiful, quite young and a star, whereas before we never even heard previous first ladies speak," she said. "I hope she speaks up on education issues, as China has a lot of challenges in this area. That's much more important than her appearance."

While admitting strong customer interest in their items in recent days, Exception store employees declined to confirm that Peng wears custom-made Exception items. Officials in south China's Guangzhou verified however that the company made the overcoat and handbag she sported Friday on arrival in Moscow.

That first outfit prompted a fashion frenzy in China and huge interest on Weibo, a microblogging site akin to Twitter, which is blocked in China. Print media show new pictures of Peng in new outfits each day, though among the magazines at a Beijing newsstand none featured her on the cover.

In 2007, Xi became a member of China's ruling elite, the Standing Committee of the Party Politburo. During her first tour as first lady, Peng toured Russia and Tanzania, and will tour the Republic of Congo and South Africa. In South Africa, she'll explore her role a World Health Organization goodwill ambassador in the campaign against tuberculosis and HIV.

Peng Liyuan, the wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping, arrives Tuesday in Pretoria, South Africa. During her first tour as China's first lady, Peng's style has moved her back into the spotlight after the well-known folk singer's break from public life.

Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2013

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