Skip to main content

Xi Jinping is about to become the leader of China and, as a result, one of the better-known people on the planet. But many Chinese knew him first as the husband of Peng Liyuan.

Ms. Peng will be in the background this week as her husband prepares to take over as secretary general of the Communist Party, the most powerful post in the country and the last step before he formally becomes president of the People's Republic early next year. But Ms. Peng, a legendary singer who is known to hundreds of millions of Chinese for her annual New Year's Eve performances on state television, is set to add a dash of style, and warmth, to the staid world of Communist Party politics.

It's not clear that China – or the Communist Party leadership – is ready for a glamorous first lady in the style of Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. The last Chinese first lady to gain wide notoriety was the wife of Mao Zedong, Jiang Qing, who was blamed after her husband's death for the horrors of the country's Cultural Revolution. Fears of a Chinese Lady MacBeth returned this year with the fall of one-time political star Bo Xilai, whose career unravelled after his wife admitted to poisoning a British businessman.

Many Chinese would be hard-pressed to remember the name of Liu Yongqing, the wife of outgoing President Hu Jintao. She stayed largely out of the public eye and only occasionally travelled with her husband during his decade in power.

The magnetic Ms. Peng, who in past years topped surveys as the most popular female entertainer in China, will almost certainly be different. Though she ended her 25-year run as a regular on the popular New Year's Eve gala after her husband joined the Standing Committee of the Politburo in 2007, she has remained a public and political figure even as her husband has climbed closer to the apex of power.

The 49-year-old soprano – who is a civilian member of the People's Liberation Army and sometimes sings in an officer's uniform – has frequently shown an ability to connect with ordinary Chinese that her stoic husband has been accused of lacking. Following the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake that left 88,000 people dead or missing, she quickly flew to the disaster area and gave a series of charity concerts, while the couple's then-teenage daughter, Xi Mingze, volunteered with the relief effort.

In May, Ms. Peng and Bill Gates donned red "Passive smoke – I don't want it!" T-shirts at a Beijing gala to promote World No-Tobacco Day. She is a World Health Organization goodwill ambassador, and has campaigned to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

She also has her own seat on the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an appointed body that is seen as the upper house of the country's parliament. Though largely a rubber-stamp assembly, the policies it passes often receive some debate first.

In Ms. Peng's telling, it was her husband who did the courting when they first met. In a rare newspaper interview ahead of her husband's promotion to the Standing Committee, she told the Zhejiang Daily that when the couple went on their first date in 1986, she dressed in plain military attire to make sure that he paid attention to her personality rather than her widely admired looks.

Mr. Xi, then 32 and a recent divorcée, was already rising political star, the executive vice-mayor of the port city of Xiamen. While he couldn't match for the national celebrity of his 24-year-old companion, he didn't seem aware of that.

"In our first encounter, I found his dress outmoded and severely plain, while [his face] looked older than his real age," Ms. Peng told the Zhejiang Daily in 2007. "He didn't even realize how famous I was and that I was the original performer of one of his favourite songs."

Despite Mr. Xi's underwhelming first impression, the couple married a year later. The future president apparently charmed her with his knowledge of music theory. "At that time, I was very moved. Isn't this the one I've been looking for?" the Zhejiang Daily quoted Ms. Peng saying. "He's unsophisticated but he's really intelligent."

Will the Communist Party let Ms. Peng be her personable self once she's living in the Zhongnanhai leadership compound? In a sign the leadership might be uncomfortable with such a prominent first lady, the Zhejiang Daily article has been scrubbed from all official Chinese government websites. Ms. Peng's name is also banned search term, like her husband's, on China's social media websites.

Women's rights activists – who long for someone to represent them at the top of China's men-only power structure – say they aren't expecting much from the country's famous first lady-to-be.

"It's the political regime, the system. In China, even a first lady doesn't mean that much. They're invisible," said Xiong Jing of the Beijing-based Media Monitor for Women. "The new first lady in North Korea is also a famous singer [Kim Jong-un's wife, Ri Sol-ju]. But what can she do?"