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Singing a Note of Caution About New First Lady Peng Liyuan

Xi Jinping, the newly appointed Chinese President, unfolded his presidency with a grand foreign tour to Russia, Tanzania, South Africa, and the Republic of the Congo. While this series of state visits unequivocally underscored China’s diplomatic emphasis on its neighboring power and traditional friends in Africa, what really caught the media’s attention was the charm offensive of China’s new First Lady, Ms. Peng Liyuan, a renowned Chinese folk vocal artist.

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Peng Liyuan, the wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping, is welcomed by officials upon arrival in Pretoria, South Africa for a state visit on March 26, 2013. The couple was honored with a 21-gun salute.

Ms. Peng’s confidence, grace, and fashion made a splash: China’s political commentators lauded her as a new wing for China’s public diplomacy, which helps soften and humanize China’s image as a monolithic authoritarian regime. In China’s blogosphere and social media, applause for Ms. Peng’s near-perfect debut in international politics seemed to steal the thunder from her husband’s foreign policy agenda. The handbags, peeptoe court shoes, scarfs, and trench coats that Ms. Peng wore during state visits have become the most sought-after fashion items on China’s online shopping hub, Taobao.com. According to Xinhua News Agency, the First Lady’s fashion impact has given China’s garment industry stocks across-the-board upticks for days. Even The New York Times used “glamorous and fashionable,” quite rare superlatives in reporting China’s high-rank figures, to describe Ms. Peng’s debut, and pitched a fashion face-off between Peng Liyuan and Michelle Obama in the future.

The sensation around China’s new First Lady is an indicator of a changing China. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always branded itself as the representative of the proletariat class; therefore, its officials are supposed to sympathize with the grassroots and, at least, look austere and humble in public. In an era of social media, the CCP officials’ exquisite fashion items—such as a Rolex watch, an Hermes belt, or a Chanel purse—have been proven again and again to be the bean spiller of corruption.

So why has Ms. Peng’s high-fashion parade been acclaimed by the people and deemed politically correct? First, patriots and nationalists can hardly object to her selections. Ms. Peng’s elegant style is the work of Ma Ke, a China-born and China-based fashion designer. Ma Ke’s studio focuses on expensive upper-scale custom-tailoring and features a simple, minimalistic style. Ms. Peng’s unannounced ambassadorship for Ma Ke’s brand “Exception” has made it so popular that the company’s website was crashed by extraordinary traffic flow.

What’s more, the state gift presented by the First Lady to her foreign counterparts is a treasure box of assorted skincare products by Pehchaolin, a Shanghai-based company established in 1931. This time, the undue luxury squandered by high-level officials is not the topic of discussion. On the contrary, Chinese intellectuals commend Ms. Peng for finally executing the long overdue role of a First Lady to represent the nation’s best brands and mentor China’s fledgling fashion and creative industries.

First Lady Peng also comes at just the right time for China’s growing middle class. China’s astoundingly fast economic development and urbanization in the past decades has generated a middle class 300 million strong. They are the new rich of China, well educated, extensively traveled, and fashion-savvy. Compared to prior generations, they are more politically active and more explicit in voicing their opinions. By and large, they dominate online discourse. Chinese officials have always been criticized for their inadequate representativeness of the people and the country. Their dull look, old-fashioned manners, and monotonous elocution, all shackled by rigid bureaucracy, are uninspiring at best. The rising middle class is eager to seek new faces that can represent the confident, diverse, and sophisticated modern Chinese on the world stage. With the help of ubiquitous social media in China, Ms. Peng’s grand entry appears to have seized that chance.

But observers of the new First Lady should be careful about what to expect from her. China’s high politics is not a game of integrity, and the Chinese folk vocal art circle from which Peng hails is notorious for its entanglement with the Chinese military and government officials. In 2000, Ms. Dong Wenhua, a famous folk vocal artist affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), disappeared from public view after she was alleged to have had an affair with Lai Changxing, the mastermind of China’s biggest-ever smuggling case. In 2011, Ms. Tang Can, another superstar folksinger affiliated with the PLA, disappeared and, it is rumored, was sentenced to prison because of her involvement in a severe PLA corruption case.

The career trajectory of the Chinese female folk vocal artists is obvious to the art circle and the public: They start off with outstanding music talents, then affiliate with a PLA ensemble to ensure a stable income, then finally secure a marriage with a high-ranking military or government official to gain protection by power and a life of affluence. This route to success makes them ambitious social climbers, relentless fighters, and canny opportunists.

Against the odds of numerous scandals and fallen stars, Ms. Peng Liyuan is seemingly the sole survivor among her peers, standing at the acme of China’s political power and artistic achievement. The photos of Ms. Peng singing to paramilitary troops brought in to crack down on Tiananmen Square protesters resurfaced online at the same time that she was praised as China’s new envoy of beauty and kindness.

This background should be a caveat to pro-democracy intellectuals and media anticipating the possibilities brought by the new First Lady. After all, beneath the fashionable façade, the First Lady is a decorated major general in the PLA, and the First Family is, to some extent, an epitome of the conglomerating and intertwining relations among politics, military power, and the arts in today’s China.