Meeting Peng Liyuan, China's First First Lady

China's President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan wave upon their arrival to the Benito Juarez International Airport in Mexico City, on June 4, 2013 Photograph by Marco UgarteAP Photo

Xi Jinping became president of China in March, and unlike every other president since the beginning of the modern reform era, he brought his wife into the spotlight with him. On his first foreign trip as president, Xi traveled with his wife Peng Liyuan—and she arguably stole the show. Domestic and foreign press cooed over her slimly fitted black trench coat and blue scarf (in Moscow), her white silk skirt-suit with upright collar (in Dar Es Salaam), her green and gold Mandarin coat with front-clasping hooks (in Pretoria). The 50-year-old Peng, still girlishly slender with cherubic cheeks, was quickly likened to Michelle Obama and Kate Middleton. When Xi meets President Obama in California on Friday, the international media’s gaze will again be on Peng, who is accompanying her husband on his second foreign trip as China’s president.

Peng—women in China do not take their husband’s surnames—is familiar with the limelight. A popular folk singer in China, she has graced dozens of magazine covers during her three-decade career, and for two of those decades, she was a fixture on the annual CCTV New Year’s Gala—a long-running television holiday ritual as familiar and iconic as the New Years Eve Ball Drop in Times Square. “What I knew of Xi Jinping before he became China’s president was only that he was Mrs. Peng’s husband,” says one young professional woman in Beijing, expressing a common sentiment. “As China’s first lady, I hope she can represent the best side of our country.”

Peng toned down her image in the years before her husband ascended to China’s highest office. When it was clear to the political elite a few years ago that Xi was a strong contender to succeed President Hu Jintao, Peng stopped appearing on the New Year’s Gala and accepted only a few public singing engagements. She didn’t disappear from the public view entirely, however, as past Chinese first ladies have. Peng accepted offers from China’s Ministry of Health and later from the World Health Organization in Geneva to become a “goodwill ambassador,” promoting awareness of tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment and supporting antismoking health campaigns. She even hammed it up with Bill Gates in Beijing last year on World Anti-Tobacco Day; they both wore red T-shirts that read, “Say No to Second-Hand Smoke.”

This is the first time a Chinese president’s wife has engaged in advocacy of any sort, and she has already reshaped the role of first lady in China. She has been named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People and Forbes’s 100 Most Powerful Women in 2013. “Peng Liyuan is the first First Lady in the PRC’s history,” says Cheng Li, a senior fellow and expert on Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution. “We should not underestimate what she has already accomplished, or may be able to accomplish.” As first lady, Peng is also highly unusual in that she was known to the nation long before her husband—and is now being reintroduced.

In the mid-1980s, a baby-faced Peng burst onto the national stage as a touring vocalist with the People’s Liberation Army. “Early on, she was identified as a talented singer and given a role in the morale-boosting business,” says Andrew Scobell, an expert on China’s military at Rand Corp. “She performed in national song-and-dance tours—kind of like USO tours.” Her most famous song was “On the Fields of Hope,” which resonated with the optimistic spirit of the times. Peng’s appeal also transcended the military establishment. “We all knew she was an Army singer, because she was often wearing a uniform,” recalls the Chinese writer Xujun Eberleine. “But what I mainly remember was her voice—a soprano. It was very bright and upbeat.”

In 1986, the 24-year-old Peng went on a blind date at a friend’s urging. Her suitor, Xi Jinping, was then a skinny 32-year-old vice-mayor who had been previously married and divorced. How their private romance unfolded, we’ll never know. But China’s state-run Xinhua newswire has published an “official version” of their love story, which is also a first. According to this account, Xi became infatuated quickly. “After only 40 minutes together, I feel you are my wife,” he reportedly told her. Peng’s parents worried about whether an ambitious politician could be a devoted husband, but Xi pleaded with his bride-to-be: “My father is also the son of a peasant. All my siblings have found ordinary spouses. I will explain this to your parents. They will accept me.” The year after they met, the couple was married in a modest ceremony.

Peng graduated from Army tours to televised mega-events, while Xi operated in the background. “In a political culture like China’s, no one knows who Xi Jinping is until you’re told he’s your leader,” explains the Shanghai-based author Paul French. In 1999, when she appeared on the popular talk show Weekend Threesome, the celebrity host Dou Wentao teased, “What kind of husband can possibly tame such a glamorous and famous woman?” Her reply was both cunning and discreet. “My husband may not be as famous in the same field,” Peng said, “but I believe he is capable of outstanding achievements in other fields.”

As her husband grew in power, she moved from pop to philanthropy. In 2006, at 43, she turned her attention to public health. She has become a spokeswoman for campaigns against tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and tobacco. In China, that can be complicated. “There’s a strong stigma attached to HIV/AIDS patients and their family members,” says Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. As for tobacco control, “one of the major challenges is the very prominent role the Chinese state-owned industry plays in making major policy decisions.” When Bill Gates visited China this April, he met one-on-one with Peng. On his foundation’s website, Gates wrote that “over a cup of tea,” the pair discussed “our hopes that China will play an ever greater role in tackling health and development challenges around the world.”

“Nothing completely prepares any woman for the role of first lady,” says Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff for Laura Bush and now organizes conferences on the history of American first ladies at American University in Washington, D.C. In the U.S., first ladies have chosen a broad range of causes: Jackie Kennedy promoted American arts and culture; Betty Ford championed women’s equality; Michelle Obama wants Americans to “get moving.” Still, McBride sees a common theme: “American first ladies have always been bellwethers of larger historic changes happening in the country. They have been role models for women of their time.”

Not so in China. “Modern Chinese leaders have always been uncomfortable appearing in public with their spouses; there’s been no ideological role for spouses to play,” says Stanford University’s Haiyan Lee, a professor of comparative literature who grew up in China. During the terms of the last three Chinese presidents, the public learned little about their leaders’ personal lives or their families. That’s in part because there’s been no need to pack family onto the proverbial campaign bus—to greet supporters and “connect” with voters—and in part because some presidential spouses and children may be liabilities, if they’ve used privileged positions to amass wealth or shortcut laws. “The life of a high-level leader in China is tremendously isolated,” says Kerry Brown, executive director of the University of Sydney’s China Studies Centre. “It’s hasn’t been necessary for them to appear personable to the general public.”

But Xi Jinping’s ascension was different, rolled out in state media with grainy old family photos of Xi as a doting son, husband, and father. Shortly after taking power, Xi launched a much-publicized campaign to curb the ostentatious privileges that separate politicians from ordinary people—such as unnecessary motorcades, celebratory banners, and lavish banquets. His speeches have also emphasized a new interest in the hopes and concerns of average Chinese people. Xi’s signature slogan is promoting the “Chinese dream.” More so than any politician since Mao, the new Chinese president is being packaged as a man of the people, and part of that means having a wife.

“Xi actually has to be a popular figure in a way that Hu did not,” says Carla Freeman, associate director of the China Studies Program at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. “He has to appeal to the Chinese public, as well as to his colleagues.”

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