Above: First Lady Peng Liyuan holds the rank of army general and is a regular performer at the annual Lunar New Year gala TV broadcast in China.
China has a new Paramount Leader. Which means a new Mrs. Paramount Leader.
The country's First Ladies have tended to hover in the side wings, rather than take a place in the spotlight. But are we about to see all that change as the new president Xi Jinping ascends to the throne, with a glamorous pop singer wife called Peng Liyuan in tow? A woman who, for a long time was far more famous than her politician husband?
The 49-year-old folk singer first found fame as an entertainer for the troops of the People Liberation's Army. She sometimes performs patriotic songs in uniform and holds a civilian rank equivalent to major general. For years her shining, round face and uplifting performances were a mainstay at CCTV's glittering New Years galas. And she's caught the attention of the international media, who have latched onto any whiff of personality that breaks through the tightly scripted, impenetrable facade that is Chinese politics.
Xi Jinping. Photo: Feng Li
William Wan of the Washington Post this month wrote of Peng, "according to people who have met her, she exudes an easy grace, a confident grasp of conversational English and a seemingly sincere heart for charitable causes. 'If this were the West, one would say she has the perfect requirements for being a leader’s wife: beauty, stage presence, public approval,' said one party intellectual, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing his work teaching future government officials at party schools. 'But things are different in China.'"
Different because China hasn't had the easiest of relationships with women who've married into power. The most recent example being Gu Kailai, wife of former politician Bo Xilai. Her story is the stuff of soap opera: a beautiful and highly accomplished wife of one of the country's most charismatic "princelings" is found guilty of murdering a British businessman. According to writer Paul French, her story fits - perhaps too conveniently - into a form of misogyny called 'Dragon Ladies', "an all-too-familiar trope in Chinese history: A successful man achieves power, wealth, and the love of many before being brought low by an excessive ambition encouraged by his wife, a beautiful woman obsessed with money and power."
French says 'Dragon Ladies' are characterised as being "married to a man but wedded to the throne". Whether it's Dowager Empress Cixi of the late 19th century, Soong Mei-ling, wife of Chaing Kai-shek, or actress Jiang Qing - better known as Madame Mao – they are framed as sexually promiscuous, power hungry wives whose ruthlessness and mismanagement single-handedly brings the country to the brink of disaster. Tales that according to French are preferable to exposing the reality of "a massive internal rupture in the halls of government."
Peng Liyuan. Photo: ChinaFotoPress
Whether the threat these women posed was real or imagined, the ideal wife of a Chinese politician has become one who knows how to stay out of the headlines, inverting a familiar saying: there's no such thing as good publicity. This goes beyond simply avoiding the limelight to being wary of doing anything that may, in the slightest, attract headlines. A bitter lesson Zhang Beili, wife of outgoing Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has surely learned after the New York Times published an expose on the $2.7 billion (US) of assets that the Wen's family controls.
Zhang rarely makes official appearances along her husband's side, and dresses modestly, but her dealings in China's diamond industry has seen her amass a small fortune, with David Barboza of the New York Times writing, "The State Department documents released by WikiLeaks included a suggestion that Mr. Wen had once considered divorcing Ms. Zhang because she had exploited their relationship in her diamond trades." With the widening gap between rich and poor and corruption in government both hot button issues in China, Zhang's (apparently legal) business dealings threaten to disrupt the Prime Minister's populist image.
With so many "do nots", what's a gal married to one of the most powerful men in the world to do? Peng could consider following the footsteps of her most recent predecessors, Wang Yeping wife of former President Jiang Zemin, or Liu Yongqing wife of current President Hu Jintao. At rare state appearances, both come off as likeable but forgettable next to glamorous counterparts like Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. And though Peng is no wallflower, she has retired her usual new years performances following her husband's promotion to Vice Premiership in 2008.
In all fairness, blandness isn't restricted to the politicians' wives, but also the politicians themselves. It is the unique characteristic of an authoritarian government that need not win over voters' hearts. And a country still recovering from their last charismatic leader and the ensuing personality cult that triggered a period of Chinese history few want repeated. Nope, the modus operandi of modern Chinese politics is to err on the side of caution, with camera-mugging, reform loving, exuberant leaders treated with suspicion. And it explains oddities like last week when the country's new top seven leaders came out dressed in virtually the same, black suit and red tie, looking as interchangeable as members of a boyband.
China's seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee not only lack diversity in dress but diversity in sex. Since the 1949 founding of Communist China no woman has managed to take a place in this, the country's most powerful circle of rulers. Further down the ladder women have a presence, notably State Councilor Liu Yandong and Secretary of Fujian Sun Chunlan. But if the country is to ever break free from an irrational fear of 'Dragon Ladies', more Chinese women must be given political power. Not vis-à-vis marriage, but legitimately put in office on their own merit (with a few princeling daughters thrown in the mix). Only then might Mao's famed dictum "women hold up half the sky" begin to ring true.