BEIJING—A photo of China’s new first lady Peng Liyuan in younger days, singing to martial-law troops following the 1989 bloody military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, flickered across Chinese cyberspace this week.
It was swiftly scrubbed from China’s Internet before it could generate discussion online. But the image—seen and shared by outside observers—revived a memory the leadership prefers to suppress and shows one of the challenges in presenting Peng on the world stage as the softer side of China.
The country has no recent precedent for the role of first lady and faces a tricky balance at home. The leadership wants Peng to show the human side of the new No. 1 leader, Xi Jinping, while not exposing too many perks of the elite. And it must balance popular support for the first couple with an acute wariness of personality cults that could skew the consensus rule among the Chinese Communist Party’s top leaders.
The image of Peng, wearing a green military uniform, her windswept hair tied back in a ponytail as she sings to helmeted and rifle-bearing troops seated in rows on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, contrasts with her appearances this week in trendy suits and coiffed hair while touring Russia and Africa with Xi, waving to her enthusiastic hosts.
“I think that we have a lot of people hoping that because Xi Jinping walks around without a tie on and his wife is a singer who travels with him on trips that maybe we’re dealing with a new kind of leader, but I think these images remind people that this is the same party,” said Kelley Currie, a China human rights expert for the pro-democracy Project 2049 Institute in Arlington, Virginia.
“It’s using some new tools and new techniques, for the same purposes: to preserve its own power.”
Peng, 50, a major general in the People’s Liberation Army who is best known for soaring renditions of patriotic odes to the military and the party, kept a low profile in recent years as her husband prepared to take over as Communist Party chief. Her re-emergence has been accompanied by a blitz in domestic, state-run media hailing her beauty and charm, in a bid to harness her popularity to build support for Xi at home and abroad.
“Peng Liyuan: Let the world appreciate the beauty of China,” declared the headline of a China News Service commentary that said the first lady’s elegant manners, conversation and clothing would highlight Chinese culture. Her presence on diplomatic trips would demystify the first family for the Chinese public, the commentary said.
However, the government is stepping into little-charted and possibly treacherous waters for China.
In 1963, the glamorous Wang Guangmei, wife of President Liu Shaoqi, wore a tight fitting qipao dress to a state banquet in Indonesia. When the political tides turned against Liu four years later, radical Red Guards forced Wang to don the same dress and paraded her through the streets as a shameful example of capitalist corruption.
Revolutionary leader Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, played a key role in the same radical campaign in which political opponents were mercilessly persecuted; after his death, she was put on trial and imprisoned, then moved to a hospital where she hanged herself.
The lifespan of Peng’s Tiananmen image in the finicky world of the Chinese Internet has so far been short, and she remains a beloved household name with huge domestic popularity. The photo has circulated mainly on Twitter, which is blocked in China. The few posts on popular domestic microblogs did not evade censors for long.
Many young Chinese are unaware that on June 3 and 4, 1989, military troops crushed weekslong pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing with force, killing hundreds, possibly thousands, of people. Those who do know about the assault tend to be understanding of Peng’s obligations as a member of a performance troupe in the all-powerful People’s Liberation Army. At the time, her husband Xi was party chief of an eastern city.
“The photo probably has a negative impact more so internationally than domestically,” said Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at City University of Hong Kong. He said more scrutiny of Peng is likely and such images could raise questions about Xi’s interest in reforms.
“It has been several months now that Xi Jinping has assumed the top leadership role and certainly, we have found no indicator that he is interested in this stage to push serious political reform.”
The image is a snapshot of the back cover of a 1989 issue of a publicly available military magazine, the PLA Pictorial, according to Sun Li, a Chinese reporter who said he had taken a photo of it on his cell phone several years ago when it was inadvertently posted on his microblog. Sun said he quickly deleted it and had no idea how it resurfaced on the Internet years later.
Microblog users can easily save images and recirculate them even after the original posts have been deleted. The picture spread further after it was tweeted by the US-based China Digital Times, which tracks Chinese online media.
Warren Sun, a Chinese military historian at Monash University in Australia, said he had little doubt about the authenticity of the image, citing a 1992 academic report as saying that after the crackdown, Peng performed a song titled “The Most Beloved People” in a salute to martial law troops.
While most of her army career has been in singing, the militaristic overtones of many of Peng’s public appearances set her apart from Michelle Obama, former French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and most of their counterparts in other countries. But for Peng, the Tiananmen photo was no one-off: She has been in the military since age 18 and has fronted TV music videos featuring dancing lines of men with combat fatigues and heavy weaponry.
She also starred in a song-and-dance number in 2007 that has perky women in Tibetan garb sashaying behind her while she sings an ode to the army that invaded Tibet in 1959. “Who is going to liberate us? It’s the dear PLA!” go some of the lyrics. The video has provoked severe criticism from Tibetan rights groups.
In an indication of Peng’s appeal in China despite her past, a man whose 19-year-old son was killed in the Tiananmen crackdown said he bears no grudges against her.
“If I had known about this back then, I would have been very disgusted by it. But now, looking at it objectively, it’s all in the past,” said Wang Fandi, whose son Wang Nan died from a bullet wound to his head. “She was in the establishment. If the military wanted her to perform, she had to go. What else could she do?”
Wang was a teacher at the China Conservatory of Music when Peng had been sent there by the military to study singing in her 20s. Though he never taught her directly, Wang had known who she was and describes her as being modest, a talented folk singer and an outstanding student.
“When I look back at history, I will look at it from other perspectives,” Wang said. “Even if she had done something wrong, we shouldn’t make a fuss about it. What’s important is what happens in the future.”