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 special investigation by Andy McSmith
Voices
A recent rise in net migration has been considered bad news for the Government
voicesYet when we talk about it, the national media goes into a frenzy, says Nigel Farage
Life and Style
Miracle muffin: chemicals can keep a muffin looking good at least a month after it was bought
food + drinkThe alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Sport
Jonny Evans and Papiss Cisse come together
football
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
people
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

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Ashdown Group: Automated Tester / Test Analyst - .Net / SQL - Cheshire

£32000 per annum + pension, healthcare & 23 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A gro...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic