WITH a smile on her face, dressed in a simple black double-breasted jacket and carrying an elegant unbranded handbag, China’s new first lady, Peng Liyuan, stepped into the international limelight yesterday on a state visit to Russia.
Her emergence on the world stage underlines China’s desire to confer a more western-style presidential image on its new Communist leader, Xi Jinping.
Mrs Peng, 50, is best known in China as a folk singer, and for many years was arguably better known and certainly more popular than her husband.
People who have met her and know her say she is vivacious and fun to be around, though she was ordered to take a back seat after Mr Xi became vice-president in 2008 as he was being groomed for state power.
But she is expected to be given high-profile events of her own to attend on Mr Xi’s sweep through Russia, Tanzania, South Africa and the Republic of Congo on a week-long trip which started yesterday, as the government tries to soften the image of China abroad.
She has won praise for her advocacy for causes including children living with HIV/AIDS, and may visit charities related to this while abroad.
Unlike the baby-kissing politicians of the West, China’s Communist Party works hard to keep its top leaders from appearing too human – to the point that for many, even their birthdays and the names of their children are regarded as a state secret.
Mr Xi and his wife are different. Their romance has been the subject of dozens of reports in state media.
“When he comes home, I’ve never thought of it as though there’s some leader in the house. In my eyes, he’s just my husband,” Mrs Peng gushed in an interview with a state-run magazine in 2007, describing Mr Xi as frugal, hardworking and down-to-earth.
She is Mr Xi’s second wife, and the two have a daughter studying in the US under an assumed name. Mr Xi divorced his first wife, the daughter of a diplomat.
Chinese first wives have traditionally kept a low profile over the past few decades, because of the example of Jiang Qing, widow of the founder of Communist China, Mao Zedong.
Mrs Jiang was the leader of the “Gang of Four” that wielded supreme power during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. She was given a suspended death sentence in 1981 for the deaths of tens of thousands during that period of chaos.
Mr Xi’s choice of Russia as his initial port-of-call on his first foreign trip as Chinese leader carries obvious significance, with both wanting to bolster their global stature as a counterweight to America.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has long sought to blunt US influence overseas, while China is grappling with the expanded military and economic interest the US has displayed in its region since 2011. Mr Xi, 59, became the first foreign guest to be met in the Kremlin by an honorary cavalry escort created by Mr Putin in 2002, officials said, underlining the importance the Russian president attaches to the relationship.
“Russian-Chinese relations are a very important factor in world politics,” Mr Putin, 60, said at the start of talks. “I am certain your visit … will give Russian-Chinese ties a new and powerful impulse.”
Mr Xi replied, through a translator: “I get the impression that you and I always treat each other with an open soul, our characters are alike. You and I are good friends.”
His remark recalled former US president George Bush’s declaration on meeting Mr Putin in 2001 that he had looked him in the eye and “was able to get a sense of his soul”.
Mr Xi, who took office this month, has met Mr Putin before, including in Moscow. The Kremlin meeting is expected to be crowned with deals that will make Beijing Russia’s top customer for oil.