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On Xi's First Trip, Many Eyes on China's First Lady


China's new First Lady Peng Liyuan performs at 10th anniversary ceremonies of the Reunification, Hong Kong, June 30, 2007.

China's new First Lady Peng Liyuan performs at 10th anniversary ceremonies of the Reunification, Hong Kong, June 30, 2007.

As Chinese President Xi Jinping departs Friday on his first overseas tour, which includes stops in Moscow and three African countries, along with the BRICS summit in Durban, South Africa, Beijing's media is buzzing about the impact of Xi’s famous wife Peng Liyuan, who will be traveling with him.

China's new first lady, one of the country’s most prominent folk singers and a World Health Organization Goodwill Ambassador for Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, has long been as well known as her husband.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, Great Hall of the People, Beijing, Nov. 15, 2012.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, Great Hall of the People, Beijing, Nov. 15, 2012.

News that she would accompany her husband on the trip has already attracted widespread attention on China’s Twitter-like Weibo micro-blogging service, where expectations are high about her ability to boost Beijing’s image abroad.

"Each country's First Lady has her own style and flare, and the thing that the world loves is color and diversity," says Tsinghua University political scientist Tang Xiaoyang.

But Peng, who is accustomed to wearing long flowing gowns while belting out soaring songs that glorify the Communist Party, will now be tested on a wildly different stage, with audiences who are unfamiliar with her singing career.

As she and President Xi embark on their trip to Moscow, Tanzania, South Africa and the Republic of Congo, the outing is the president’s first opportunity to shape his image as China’s new leader before foreign audiences.

In Russia, China’s president will focus on strengthening long steady bilateral ties and boosting already booming cooperation in fields such as energy, aviation, space and technology.

In Africa, the goal is not only to boost trade ties, but ease concerns that China’s key interest on the continent is satisfying its massive resource needs.

Renmin University journalism professor Zhong Xin says there are high expectations that Peng will help her husband convey a friendly image of China.

"Mrs. Peng is beautiful and popular and because this is the first time she will be unveiled in her new public role, she will have a good influence," she said, explaining that the new First Lady will not only shed a positive light on herself, but the president and the entire country. Peng is expected to engage in some public activities with other first ladies, and media reports indicate she may even deliver a speech during next week’s BRICS summit.

Related video report by Jeff Seldin According to Zhong, such high-profile events for a Chinese first lady represent a departure from the past.

"China doesn’t have a tradition of a First Lady following the president like in the West," says Zhong.

While recent presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao did take their wives abroad, first ladies were typically kept far from the limelight and rarely mentioned in Chinese news reports.

While Peng may be popular in China, political scientist Shi Yinhong says her husband’s success abroad will depend on his own political skills, not hers.

“Up to now his wife is quite popular within China and maybe quite popular in Eastern society, but this is not important because Xi Jinping himself has charisma, at this stage it is sufficient," he says.

Peng is Xi’s second wife. The two met, dated and later were married while China’s new president was serving as mayor in the southern city of Xiamen in 1987.
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