China's next first lady: a folk singer who threatens to shake up political life

Peng Liyuan, wife of Xi Jinping, has a higher profile than previous presidential spouses

Beijing

One prominent figure missing from the crucial 18th Communist Party congress, which continues this week, is China's first lady-in-waiting.

Known to hundreds of millions of Chinese for her career as a singer of stirring folk tunes, Peng Liyuan's fame has long eclipsed that of her husband, China's next president, Xi Jinping – which may be one reason the pop star has been keeping a low profile.

Ms Peng, 49, a civilian member of the army's musical troupe and charity worker, is not China's typical first lady, as anyone who has seen her sing during the annual Chinese New Year special on state television can attest. This is one of the world's most-watched TV programmes.

"If this were the West, one would say [Ms Peng] has the perfect requirements for being a leader's wife: beauty, stage presence, public approval," one party intellectual told The Washington Post. "But things are different in China."

While a Western spin doctor might be chomping at the bit to get Ms Peng on to the world stage, her fame presents the leadership with the challenge of how to marshal her skills and fame, without allowing her to gain more public influence than is comfortable for China's political elite.

As the country's leaders worked behind closed doors over the weekend to come up with the final details of the leadership transition – which is expected to be announced this week, with Mr Xi named as President on Thursday – the international community has been quick to note that very few members of China's political elite are women. Liu Yandong is the only female member of China's current Politburo, but is not a member of the powerful Standing Committee.

Some have suggested that Ms Peng, who was appointed UN Goodwill Ambassador for Tuberculosis and HIV/Aids, and took part in an anti-smoking campaign with the Microsoft founder Bill Gates earlier this year, may be the woman to change the precedent.

Lin Chong-pin, a professor of international affairs at Tamkang University in Taiwan, told the Focus Taiwan news channel that having a "bright and beautiful" wife gives Mr Xi an advantage over previous leaders, describing her as "a PLA [People's Liberation Army] major-general and a singer whose appearance on the international arena will dim the lights for all her previous counterparts."

Ms Peng has certainly been forthcoming in her praise for her husband, discussing their relationship in an unusually candid style. "When we first met, I felt in my heart that this is the ideal husband of my dreams – straightforward and honest and thoughtful," she told People.com in February.

However, if Ms Peng does try to change the role of the first lady, it will not be easy.

Since the excesses of the Mao Tse-tung era, when the Great Helmsman let loose a Cultural Revolution (1966-76) that destroyed millions of lives and left wounds that are still raw, the Communist Party has sought to distance itself from cults of personality. Solid, dull technocrats have run the show, with the focus instead placed on the Party as a unified entity.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk