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China’s future first lady’s star power in eclipse
Fearing singer will outshine bland leader-to-be, country dims spotlight
BEIJING | She’s a glamorous singer with big hair, beloved by millions, and a major general in the People’s Liberation Army to boot. He’s a stiff policymaker, a suit with the bland public persona of most Chinese leaders.
Vice President Xi Jinping is in line to take the country’s top post in two years, setting up an unusual scenario: In a system where leaders’ families are kept almost invisible, how will the ruling Communist Party handle a first lady who’s arguably more famous than her husband?
So far, the answer appears to be by making her disappear, too. References to Mr. Xi’s marriage to Peng Liyuan are being scrubbed from the Internet. She has been given a desk job at her military song-and-dance troupe, reducing her public appearances.
Interest in the couple was renewed last month after Mr. Xi was appointed to a committee overseeing the Chinese military, boosting the likelihood he will lead the Communist Party in 2012.
Political wives have long been viewed suspiciously in China — ever since Chairman Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, promoted his most radical policies, took part in purging opponents and ultimately made a grab for power. She was arrested and imprisoned after his death in 1976.
In a world where first ladies from France’s Carla Bruni to America’s Michelle Obama routinely grab media attention, Liu Yongqing, the wife of Chinese President Hu Jintao, is rarely seen except during state visits with the spouses of foreign leaders.
The almost absent Chinese first lady reflects in part the preference of the technocratic, authoritarian leadership for running the rising global power at an impersonal distance.
“On the one hand, they have been talking about governance with a human touch and given that [Mrs. Peng’s] image is positive, what’s the point of trying to eliminate it?” said Dali Yang, a China expert at the University of Chicago. “It’s only making it more mysterious and provides room for speculation.”
By all public accounts, the 47-year-old Mrs. Peng’s image is squeaky clean.
Many Chinese can recall her almost yearly appearances on state television’s Spring Festival Gala, which draws 800 million viewers, beginning with the inaugural 1982 program. On fog-filled stages dressed in pouffy evening gowns, Mrs. Peng performed rousing patriotic songs such as “On the Plains of Hope.”
Having a first lady who’s well-known in her own right would likely be a point of pride for many Chinese, who know little about their rulers.
“For him to be in his position and be able to handle the pressure of being with a famous woman, I think that says a lot about him,” said Xu, a 26-year-old real estate consultant taking a cigarette break outside his office in Beijing. He would only give his surname, saying he did not want to be quoted making statements that could be considered critical.
“It’s really no big deal, but maybe the high-level officials are extra sensitive,” he said. “Our county’s leaders have an air of mystery. That’s how the system works. Besides their official bio, everything else is blank.”
Mr. Xi, who at 57 is a decade older than his wife, is said to have been introduced to Mrs. Peng by a mutual friend in 1986 when he was a vice mayor in the booming coastal city of Xiamen. They have been married for 23 years and have a teenage daughter.
“When they met, she was upset. This guy was such a country bumpkin. And he looked old,” according to a 2007 article in the Zhanjiang Evening News, a southern newspaper.
Mr. Xi charmed her, talking about music theory, the article said. “Peng said, ‘At that time, I was very moved. Isn’t this the one I’ve been looking for? He’s unsophisticated, but he’s really intelligent.’”
That article was widely reprinted in whole or part, even by the official Xinhua News Agency and the Communist Party’s Peoples Daily newspaper, but has since been removed from their websites.
In a 2001 article, Mrs. Peng said she felt fortunate for having an understanding husband.
“As a government official, he’s very busy. When I visit him in Fuzhou, he has to delay meetings or trips to the countryside in order to find time to spend with me,” the Shanghai Morning Post quoted her as saying. “Every time I go, we’ll try our best to avoid quarrels and enjoy those hard-earned days.”
Those articles and others have been deleted from most websites. While the deletions are not definitely the government’s handiwork, the fact that cached versions of the articles are being erased too conforms to the way China’s Internet censors work.
The State Council Information Office did not respond to a faxed request for comment.
Rebecca MacKinnon, a China specialist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation studying Internet issues, said the censorship fits China’s long-standing policy of not reporting details of top leaders’ personal lives.
Reporters and editors may have been more careless when the articles were published, but were apparently now cleaning up since Mr. Xi’s political future has become more clear, Ms. MacKinnon said.
Mrs. Peng will likely keep fading from public view as Mr. Xi’s political star continues to rise. She hasn’t appeared on the Spring Festival Gala since 2007, just months before Mr. Xi was named to the Communist Party’s ruling nine-member Standing Committee.
“Chinese leaders would never let their wives have a high public profile,” said Li Datong, a former state newspaper editor who was removed from his job for reporting on sensitive topics. “Sometimes they might take their wives on a state visit, and you may see them holding hands and even then, it just looks so stiff.”
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