China’s new first lady uses PR to project ‘soft power’

People's Republic of China leader Xi Jinping and First Lady Peng Liyuan during their arrival in Russia.

People’s Republic of China leader Xi Jinping and First Lady Peng Liyuan

Michelle Obama and Kate Middleton show Peng Liyuan the way

At a time when China’s Foreign Ministry is struggling to improve the country’s international image, new first lady Peng Liyuan, who in the past has dazzled audiences at home and abroad with her bravura soprano voice, has been brought out of the Chinese closet and into the PR limelight.

China is concerned about difficulties in projecting a global ‘soft power’ presence, and the government recently established a Public Diplomacy Association made up of former ambassadors and other notable figures to try to make the ‘voice of China and the story of China more engaging and more convincing’.

With Chinese Officials now talking publicly about the need for Chinese companies, especially mining and construction conglomerates, to be more sensitive to local needs in Africa and Asia, promoting Peng Liyuan who last year took up a role with the World Health Organisation, is providing a welcome boon.

The excitement over Mrs Peng comes after 20 years of China’s first ladies keeping a very discreet profile: Liu Yongqing, the wife of the former president Hu Jintao rarely appeared in public; Wang Yeping, the wife of Mr Hu’s predecessor; Jiang Zemin, also usually stayed behind the scenes; and China’s leader in the 1950s, Mao Zedong thought carefully about how his wife, an actress of some renown named Jiang Qing, would play her part in the new China. Traditional attitudes ranked stage performers just above prostitutes in China’s social hierarchy and so Mao set about destroying evidence of her past career – prints of her films were burned.

Current leader Xi Jinping’s wife is a folk singer and far more famous then her husband. When Mr Xi joined the standing committee of the Politburo in 2007, the joke was “Who is Xi Jinping? He’s Peng Liyuan’s husband.”

First to Moscow, then to Tanzania and on to South Africa and Congo, Peng Liyuan quickly caused something akin to the Kate Middleton, Michelle Obama  effect. Weibo, China’s version of Twitter was buzzing with frenzied activity.  Copies of her coat instantly appeared on Taobao, an online shopping site, for 499 yuan ($77) – and advertised as “in the same style as the first lady’s.”

Btw, shares in Dalian Dayang Trands Co. Ltd – the company rumored to have made the coat that husband Xi wore in Russia – were up just over 10% on Monday. Beijing-based women’s clothing maker Lancy Co. Ltd also saw its share price rise more than 10%, while Guangdong-based Foshan Saturday Shoes Co. Ltd recorded a 4.2% bump.

Well aware of the clothes hysteria that buzzes through social media, Peng Liyuan wisely shunned foreign luxury in favour of domestic labels – just like other first ladies and equivalents Michelle Obama and Kate Middleton aka The Duchess of Cambridge.

First lady Michelle Obama who had a rough and tumble start being compared to Marie Antoinette (let them eat cake), has found her niche – so while husband was on official duties last week in Israel, Michelle Obama (in trademark twinset and  full skirt) carried out Easter duties with US military families (btw was she single handedly responsible for bringing back the cardy – marking a refresh for J Crew?). She’s an asset for the President and for the up-and-coming US designers she champions like Jason Wu, Thakoon, Doo-Ri and Michael Kors.

The same goes for Kate Middleton who is creating a royal icon equivalent to or perhaps better than the tragic Diana, and is giving the British Royals a refresh. Her engagement dress has enabled the British company Issa to expand only last week, into Japan, and launch a timely maternity version.

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