Chinese Media Abuzz With 'Liyuan-mania'

Chinese President Xi Jinping, Peng Liyuan H 2013
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Having spent the previous decade in the shadows of her husband, President Xi Jinping, singer-turned-first-lady Peng Liyuan has returned to centerstage as the much-loved subject of a press frenzy.

HONG KONG – Given its standing as one of the Chinese government’s leading mouthpieces, China Daily’s coverage of Xi Jinping’s first international tour as the country’s newly anointed president is hardly surprising. The front-page splash on Tuesday’s edition is an article about him talking about the “shared destinies” between China and its African allies; then come three more pages of material dedicated to his visit to Tanzania and South Africa, where he is to attend a BRICS summit.

The eye-catcher, however, lies in the business section. Placed prominently on the first page is a story headlined: “First lady sparks frenzy over domestic fashion brands." In a rare instance of an official media outlet shining a light on the wife of a national leader, the piece highlighted how the sartorial choices of Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, have been the center of much discussion in the Chinese blogosphere.

“The first lady’s style was dubbed by netizens as Liyuan style,” said the article, an obvious nod to Korean pop star Psy’s hit Gangnam Style. While the piece presents itself as an analysis of how Peng’s much-praised attire has helped raise the profile of Chinese fashion brands -- it quotes a report stating that an official body has confirmed Peng’s clothes as being custom-made by a domestic designer -- the story has proved to be an example of Beijing showing its might through soft cultural power.

This new approach is manifested in a wide variety of articles which appeared in both officially sanctioned and commercial media outlets of the day. The Southern Metropolis Daily, for example, ran a photograph of a beaming Peng being gifted with a bouquet from Russian president Vladimir Putin over the weekend; the Internet portal of the official Xinhua News Agency, meanwhile, also featured the first lady, a few steps behind her husband and the Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete, as the couple arrived in Dar Es Salaam.

As Chinese social media was abuzz with Peng’s appearance -- with “Peng Liyuan’s coat” becoming at once a trending phrase and a selling point for online clothing retailers boasting items similar to the one the first lady was wearing when she stepped off the plane with Xi in Moscow -- Hong Kong’s state-backed Wen Wei Po ran a commentary piece about how she broke with the “floppy” clothes worn by the spouses of China’s previous leaders. “Peng Liyuan could definitely appear on the covers of British and American fashion magazines,” it said.

Following paragraphs of intense praise of Peng’s appearance and demeanor, the piece ended by stating that “commenting on Mrs. Xi Jinping’s appearance is definitely not a banal matter. Taking that with Xi’s composed, natural way of talking – which is devoid of a voice-raising, ‘lecturing’ tone – and [the couple’s] neat appearance, all this embodies today’s Chinese leaders’ emphasis on communicating with others and on considerations of other people’s feelings.”

Peng’s return to centerstage has followed years of a forced migration to the wings. As recently as a decade ago, she was a much more well known figure in China than her husband, who was himself the son of the veteran communist leader Xi Zhongxun. A folk singer who had made frequent appearances on nationally broadcast musical galas, Peng -- who also had a master’s degree in music and a civilian rank equivalent to major general in the People’s Liberation Army -- was a darling of the Chinese media when Xi was still working his way up the ranks in provincial postings in Fujian (where he served as governor from 1999 to 2002) and Zhejiang (governor and party chief, 2002 to 2007). Thus went one of the jokes circulating in the Chinese capital during the early 2000s: “Who’s Xi Jinping? Oh, he’s Peng Liyuan’s husband.”

As Xi’s status as heir apparent to Hu Jintao was confirmed, Peng slowly receded into the background so as not to outshine the future Chinese leader -- a forced absence now put to an end with a big bang, as Beijing repositions her centerstage as Carla Bruni and Michelle Obama rolled into one flawless, scandal-free package. Don’t expect her to put in a cameo in a Feng Xiaogang comedy or present the best film prize at the next Golden Rooster awards, though.