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Society & Culture

The Effect of China’s First Lady, Sweeping the Nation

Apr 09 , 2013
  • Zhou Yijun

    Researcher, Shanghai Institute for Int'l Studies

Donning a light blue scarf, dark coat, and a black leather bag, Ms. Peng Liyuan, China’s beautiful First Lady, attracted even more lens and flashbulbs than her husband during their first state visit to Russia,. On March 22 China’s First Lady, Peng Liyuan, accompanied her husband, China’s new President Xi Jinping, and took her first step on the red carpet of the world stage during an official diplomatic occasion. In the days that followed, from traditional media to new media, official media to commercial media, there was an unpredictable enthusiasm for the First Lady. There were three reasons for such an enthusiastic reception, which were political, economic and social. 

With access to new communication technologies, ordinary Chinese people can now easily get information about China’s governments at all levels and know more about countries outside of China, the bigger Forbidden City. In 2012, Internet users in China were able to watch the live debate between President Candidates Obama and Romney, as well as the Taiwan provincial Campaign speech of Mr. Ma Ying-jeou and Ms.Tsai Ing-wen. The consequences of these events are that when First Lady Michelle Obama said, “When people ask me whether being in the White House has changed my husband, I can honestly say that when it comes to his character, and his convictions, and his heart, Barack Obama is still the same man I fell in love with all those years ago”, she not only moved American Voters but also some sensitive Chinese housewives. That is to say, Chinese people are now able to get information on the First Lady and the First Family. This is completely different compared with the situation of 1949 or even 1979. In China’s political discourse, for the first time, the term “First Lady” is no longer a taboo. 

In many of reports on China’s First Lady, quite a few media reports have shifted the focus to Ms. Peng Liyuan’s clothing and accessories. We can’t see any logo on the First Lady’s clothing and accessories, but the headlines many websites and newspapers have pushed the designers and brands to the center stage. A Chinese fashion brand EXCEPTION de MIXMIND and the designer Ma Ke have become famous overnight. That day China’s Shanghai securities composite index reported 2326.71 points, down 0.07%, on the textile and garment board, however it was received at 2231.72 points, up 0.5%. Four high-end custom clothing concept stocks were trading strong. In an increasingly pluralistic society, the resources of the right to speak are no longer exclusively controlled by the government, and CCTV is just an ordinary TV channel. Business groups have the ability to direct an audiences’ attention and to represent their brands. In the news feast of the First Lady, the government and business groups respectively get what they want. 

The First Lady: a famous singer, a beautiful woman in the military, the AIDS prevention ambassador. There have been many labels given to Ms. Peng Liyuan and combined into entertaining headlines. The images of Russian President Vladimir Putin welcoming Ms Peng Liyuan and her husband with flowers enticed the Chinese people. In this vast country, there are millions of ordinary people who have no interest in international politics, but they still love the First Lady Laura Bush, who helped turned a prodigal cowboy into a President; they still discuss why Carla Bruni, the graceful supermodel, does not wear heels next to French President; and they do envy Great Britain for using Princess Kate as an excuse to have a national carnival for the wedding of Prince William. They have a simple desire that a great state with 1.37 billion people should also have a beautiful woman as a cover for Vanity Fair. Liyuan, with her simple civilian background, low-key personality, clean resume and dignified appearance has filled the vacuum and swept the Chinese people’s historical sense of hunger. 

In China’s traditional culture, women should not appear in political occasions, and should always stand in the shadow of the leaders. Their greatest virtue remains unknown to the public. So, in China, the term “First Lady” is seen as an imported foreign good. Today, China is gradually moving from a revolutionary society towards a normal and peaceful one. The high-profile debut of a “First Lady” can be seen as respect for the rules in international relations, as well as some state building in domestic politics. Liyuan, with her grace and beauty, guides the people to trust the central government and to love their diverse country. The enthusiasm for the First Lady is not so much praise for her personality, as an expectation for a new generation of central government. 

In 1984, for the first time the Chinese people used “Hello Xiaoping” to express their equal love to then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. 29 years later,, for the first time, the Chinese people equally express their heartfelt love to the new First Lady even though they know that she is not the first wife of the President. Both of these things will be written into the long history of China. 

Zhou Yijun is a Research Fellow at Shanghai Institute for International Studies.

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