China last week received its first look at Peng Liyuan, the wife of new president Xi Jinping, and many became enamored with the fashion-forward first lady.
Beijing hoped that her popularity among the masses, which had some clamoring for copycat versions of the clothes she wore on her official visit to Moscow, would be a step toward softening the image of China’s top-level officials, both domestically and abroad. China’s most-powerful government body, the Politburo Standing Committee, has often been derided for its drab politicians who appear manufactured by a cookie-cutter that runs the country in a robotic fashion. In contrast, the smiling and glamorous Peng has provided a breath of fresh air.
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The video depicts footage of a younger Peng, serenading People’s Liberation Army soldiers, following the military crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing, the Associated Press reports. The protests culminated on June 3 and 4 when protests turned violent. Dubbed the Tiananmen Square Massacre, more than 2,000 civilian casualties were reported. The crisis made international headlines and the image of the "tank man," a young protestor who stood in front of a formidable military vehicle, made the cover of Time magazine.
The video of Peng had barely made a blip on Weibo, a Chinese social media site similar to Twitter's microblogging platform, before it was quickly removed from most video-sharing websites. A screen grab of the video was shared by many online, and it served as a reminder of the Communist Party’s grim past and Peng's less-than-glamorous early years.
Previously, Peng was the ideal candidate to take on the first lady role of the growing superpower nation. Her relatively humble beginnings as the daughter of artist parents in northeastern Shandong Province was welcomed in contrast to the "princeling" status of most high-level government authorities.
She has star-quality, literally reaching national fame for her singing talents as a soprano with the People’s Liberation Army’s arts troupe and also singing at the annual Lunar New Year Gala. She also has been active in philanthropy, working with HIV/AIDS patients in partnership with the World Health Organization.
No longer dressed in her bold white coat and bright blue scarf, the Peng of 1989 has instead donned her green military uniform, as she sings to a sea of armed soldiers seated in the middle of Tiananmen Square.
Kelley Currie, a Virginia-based China human rights expert for the nonprofit pro-democracy Project 2049 Institute, told AP that the new video may have been a snap back to reality for many Chinese.
“I think that we have a lot of people hoping that ... maybe we’re dealing with a new kind of leader, but I think these images remind people that this is the same party,” Currie said.
“It’s using some new tools and new techniques, for the same purposes: to preserve its own power.”
Bill Bishop, a Beijing-based China-watcher isn't surprised to see Peng in such a role -- she is, after all, part of the military.
"Peng Liyuan was/is a soldier," he said. "Soldiers follow orders. Why should we [be] surprised she did her assigned job in entertaining troops in 1989?"
Still, seeing Peng dressed in military garb in Tiananmen Square has conjured feelings of nostalgia among some of China’s older generation, despite the government's attempts to downplay the event. Indeed, Mao Zedong’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing, was responsible for a large part of the radical Cultural Revolution that had many political opponents and intellectuals ruthlessly persecuted. With this as a reminder, perhaps the Chinese should proceed with caution before completely adopting Peng as their version of a prominent and popular woman at home and abroad.