Glamorous and graceful new first lady a godsend for Beijing

By David Kan Ting, Special to the China Post

I couldn’t help humming an old, 1980s campus song — the drizzle comes just in time — when I watched on television the international debut of Peng Liyuan in Moscow last week as China’s first lady. Like a drizzle, she came just in time after a prolonged drought of 60 years. Most if not all her predecessors were “dour-looking,” as aptly depicted by the New York Times. Well, even that sounds like an understatement. The contrast between now and then couldn’t have been more striking. No wonder the debut was an instant success, when the world witnessed a refreshing and welcome change coming from the world’s second largest economy and most populous country. China’s new first lady was as graceful and glamorous as a supermodel when she emerged from Air China’s 747 jetliner with her husband, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was embarking on his first trip abroad after becoming China’s top leader 10 days earlier. It may be exaggerating to say Peng Liyuan stole her husband’s show upon arrival in Moscow — the first leg of their three-country swing that also includes Tanzania and South Africa, but as long as the media and the blogosphere are concerned, she beat her husband hands-down. It seemed that more people were interested in Peng’s outfit than in the joint communique released at the end of the visit.

Peng Liyuan captivated millions of fans the moment she stepped into the international limelight. Wearing a smile and dressed in a simple black peacoat, she waved with her portly husband to waiting crowds on the tarmac. The image will be long remembered as a new page in China’s efforts to enhance its soft power and improve its international image. Such efforts won’t be easy, given the country’s lack of a civil society and its spotty human rights record. But here Peng Liyuan comes in as a godsend for the difficult job. As one of China’s best-known singers who has wowed audiences at home and abroad, including New York’s Lincoln Center and the Vienna State Opera House, she is at ease performing on arenas large and small, domestic or international. She is the United Nations ambassador for health, working to stamp out the scourge of AIDS. It seems that she possesses every quality necessary for accomplishing the daunting mission before her. This inevitably makes some see her as a Raisa Gorbachev redux, the vivacious and stylish first lady of the former Soviet Union who had done a lot to improve the image of the “Evil Empire” in the late 1980s. Some may dispute the comparison, but the two did have a lot in common: fashionable, glamorous, and gifted. Raisa liked to show off the best in Soviet designer clothes to the West (soft power, of sorts). Likewise, Peng sported her stylish wardrobe, all homemade in the world’s biggest workshop. Raisa worked hard helping children suffering from leukemia, and she contributed a great deal to the improvement of her nation’s image. But she and the era of cold war have long gone. Now the limelight has shifted to the new debutante. People are curious to see how she measures up to Michelle Obama, the immensely popular and fashionable first lady of the United States, the world’s richest nation and sole superpower. While little is known about the plan of Xi’s visit to the United States, one thing is certain, however. Peng Liyuan is unlikely to be outshone by her U.S. counterpart when they meet at a state dinner in the White House in the not too distant future.