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Foreign Policy

The Pivotal Role of China’s First Lady in Public Diplomacy

Mar 24, 2014
  • Jay Wang

    Director, University of Southern California

First ladies have long been an important part of a nation’s public diplomacy. Now their role is ever more pronounced. With Michelle Obama’s six-day visit to China, China’s first lady is inviting special attention as the country actively courts international public opinion.

What is most interesting about Peng Liyuan is that, at home, her fame and celebrity long preceded her husband Chinese president Xi Jinping’s. Before Mr. Xi emerged on the national scene, Ms. Peng, one of the country’s foremost folk singers, was already a household name, and her popularity has spanned the past three decades.

While there is growing recognition that Peng is a valuable asset for China’s public diplomacy, there is much less understanding of the role she can and will play. 

If we take a look at American first ladies in recent times, their role runs the gamut from “ceremonial backdrop” in the case of Laura Bush to “substantive world figure” such as Hillary Clinton. Even Hillary Clinton’s first ladyship evolved over the years, from her “I-could’ve-stayed-home-and-baked-cookies” comment and her failed attempt to overhaul the nation’s health care, to a more conventional profile of championing women’s and children’s issues.

Ms. Peng has accompanied her husband on several state visits. Her presence on these trips, highly publicized in the Chinese media, represented a major shift in China’s approach to its first lady. Her debut on the world stage was among CPD’s top 10 soft power stories of 2013. But her exact role remains ambivalent. How this will unfold will be reflective of China’s political reality, as well as shaped by her own personal charisma.

In her recent video address on the naming of the giant panda cub at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., Peng Liyuan came across as friendly and attractive. Michelle Obama also taped a video on the same occasion. Both offered messages of congratulations, and underscored the deepening collaboration and connections between the United States and China. While Michelle Obama traced the history of giant pandas in the U.S., Peng brought a more personal touch, by speaking from a mother’s perspective. Holding a panda doll while delivering her speech amplified Peng’s point. The video’s setting of a Chinese bamboo garden also seemed appropriate. Notwithstanding a few necessary production improvements, the video clearly demonstrated the growing sophistication of China’s international communication and Peng’s potential for playing a more prominent role in the country’s global outreach.

At first glance, promoting arts and culture appears a natural fit for Ms. Peng. But her artistry and Chinese folk singing is decidedly difficult for a non-Chinese audience to appreciate or understand. Even within China, it commands a much older audience. The art form relies solely on her vocal performance, and its tunes draw from distinct, local folk songs from various regions of China.

Like their husbands, first ladies are increasingly expected to enter the foray of pop culture, especially when it comes to engaging with a younger demographic. Ms. Peng certainly doesn’t have the on-camera stiffness typical of many Chinese officials. But to what extent she can venture into the wider media world remains to be seen.

If Michelle Obama is, as The New York Times reporter Jennifer Steinhauer wrote, “the embodiment of the contemporary, urban, well-heeled, middle-aged American woman,” what Peng Liyuan stands for both at home and abroad is less clear. This is in fact indicative of a larger challenge facing China’s soft power efforts, as the country’s identity is in constant flux. Amidst rapid change, there has been a lack of a clear, compelling, consistent narrative about what the country represents and what its global role will be.

While Mrs. Obama talks freely about her PTA meetings, restaurant choices, film preferences, and fitness routines, we don’t know what Ms. Peng can and will share with the broader public. We may find out more about her while she hosts Michelle Obama’s visit to China this week.

Moreover, it is important to recognize that the international image of the Chinese first lady is also a function of the changing Western perception of Chinese (or Asian) women in general. Gone are the days when the oriental feminine mystique dominated the popular imagination, as in the case of the “beautiful, powerful, and sexy” Meiling Soong (Madame Chiang Kai-shek), who charmed a generation of Americans in the 1930s and 40s.

The primary focus of attention in first-lady diplomacy has been to facilitate a meaningful, supportive climate for countries to pursue constructive relationships. This is no less important than policy advocacy. In fact, such public diplomacy is fundamental to a nation’s effectiveness in international affairs. It is increasingly doubtful whether any significant foreign policy agenda can be achieved without the support of the public, especially when dealing with countries where the middle class flourishes. Indeed, given the centrality and complexity of U.S.-China relations, first-lady diplomacy has an indispensable role in improving bilateral ties. 

Jay Wang is Director of the Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California.

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