It was swiftly taken off China’s internet before it could generate discussion online. But the image – seen and shared by outside observers – revived a memory the leadership prefers to suppress and shows one of the challenges in presenting Mrs Peng as the softer side of China.
The country has no recent precedent for the role of First Lady and faces a tricky balancing act at home. The leadership wants Mrs Peng to show the human side of new leader, Xi Jinping, while not exposing too many perks of the elite. It must juggle popular support for the first couple with an acute wariness of personality cults that could damage the consensus rule among the Chinese Communist Party’s top leaders. The image of Mrs Peng in uniform, her windswept hair tied back in a ponytail as she sings to rifle-bearing troops seated in rows in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, contrasts with her appearances this week in fashionable suits and styled hair while touring Russia and Africa with Mr Xi.
Mrs Peng, 50, a major general in the People’s Liberation Army who is best known for soaring renditions of patriotic odes to the military and the party, kept a low profile in recent years as her husband prepared to take over as Communist Party chief. Her re-emergence has been accompanied by a frenzy in domestic, state-run media hailing her beauty and charm, in a bid to harness the singer’s popularity to build support for Mr Xi. “Peng Liyuan: Let the world appreciate the beauty of China,” declared the headline of a China News Service commentary that said her elegant manners, conversation and clothing would highlight Chinese culture. Her presence on diplomatic trips would demystify the first family for the Chinese public, the commentary said.
However, the government is stepping into little-charted and possibly treacherous waters for China. In 1963, the glamorous Wang Guangmei, wife of president Liu Shaoqi, wore a tight-fitting qipao dress to a state banquet in Indonesia. When the political tides turned against Mr Liu four years later, Red Guards forced Mrs Wang to don the same dress and paraded her through the streets as a shameful example of capitalist corruption.
The lifespan of Mrs Peng’s Tiananmen image in the world of the Chinese internet has so far been short, and she remains a beloved household name with huge domestic popularity. The photo has circulated mainly on Twitter, which is blocked in China. The few posts on popular domestic microblogs did not evade censors for long.
Many young Chinese are unaware that on 3-4 June, 1989, military troops crushed pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing, killing hundreds, possibly thousands, of people. Those who do know about the assault tend to be understanding of Mrs Peng’s obligations as a member of a performance troupe in the People’s Liberation Army. At the time, her husband Mr Xi was party chief of an eastern city.
“The photo probably has a negative impact more so internationally than domestically,” said Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at City University of Hong Kong. He said more scrutiny of Mrs Peng is likely.
“It has been several months now that Xi Jinping has assumed the top leadership role and we have found no indicator that he is interested in pushing serious political reform.”