First lady in waiting is no stranger to spotlight but party won't want a cult

Wed, Nov 14, 2012, 00:00

Peng Liyuan:Peng Liyuan, China’s first lady-in-waiting, known to millions for belting out stirring folk tunes in army uniform or ethnic gear, is getting ready for her close-up as husband Xi Jinping prepares to ascend to the leadership of the world’s most populous nation.

As the 18th Communist Party congress comes up with the final details of the leadership transition, Mr Xi and his wife are set to become the focus of attention, but they will do so in presumably low-key fashion. High-profile wives tend not to do too well in post-revolutionary China.

Ms Peng (49) is an opera singer, charity worker and much more famous than her husband, who is eight years older.

While a Western spin doctor might be chomping at the bit to get Ms Peng out on the world stage, her fame could present the leadership with a challenge – how to marshal her considerable skills without her gaining too much personal influence in the machinations of the state.

Since the excesses and division of the late days of the Mao Zedong era, when the Great Helmsman let loose a Cultural Revolution (1966-76) that destroyed millions of lives and left wounds that are still raw, the Communist Party has sought to distance itself from cults of personality. Solid, dull technocrats have run the show. A few have shown glints of personality, but in the main, the focus has been on the party as a unified entity, with leading servants of little colour, such as outgoing president Hu Jintao.

Ms Peng is about as colourful as you can get, as anyone who has seen her wearing her smart People’s Liberation Army uniform, backed by red-sequined dancers, during the Chinese new year special on CCTV can attest.

This is the world’s most-watched TV programme, and she is a star attraction, singing stirring ditties like We are the Yellow River, We are Mount Taishan or Embroidering the Red Flag.

She has been unusually candid about her relationship with Mr Xi.

“When we first met, I felt in my heart that this is the ideal husband of my dreams – straightforward and honest and thoughtful,” she told people.comin February.

“Later he told me that he knew I was the wife for him 40 minutes after we met. I feel he is the best qualified husband by any woman’s standard.”