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Will China's First Lady Outshine Her Husband?

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Will China's First Lady Outshine Her Husband?

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Will China's First Lady Outshine Her Husband?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

OK. Let's talk now about a new first lady who has stepped onto the global stage, and she could be setting a new standard for the job. She's a U.N. ambassador for AIDS awareness. Not so unusual. But she's also a major singing star and a major general in the military. China's new first lady has been in the public eye for decades. Now, with her husband rising to the nation's top job, some wonder if she'll still be allowed to shine. NPR's Louisa Lim has this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: For decades, China's new first lady was more famous than her husband, Communist party chief Xi Jinping.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PENG LIYUAN: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: Peng Liyuan is a singer, known for her annual appearances on the most-watched television program on earth, the Chinese New Year gala. She's from a humble background and is best known for her folk songs. She's not the kind of woman who wears expensive designer labels, according to Yan Chang, who spent time with her several years ago.

YAN CHANGE: (Through Translator) My impressions of her are great. She's very plain-living. She wears casual, embroidered clothes and likes traditional stuff. She used to come to my house to listen to music and to talk about art.

LIM: They met in 2003, when the singer commissioned two songs from Yan's husband, composer Josef Fung.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIYUAN: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: It was to be, Peng told him, her last album. She was at the height of her fame, one of China's leading singers. But even then, she told Josef Fung, there were other forces at work that would decide her future.

JOSEF FUNG: She was quite candid about that. She said the leaders were saying, well, you should reduce your public performances now. In the future, you shouldn't really appear at all. I couldn't understand why at the time. And then she said, yeah, I wouldn't really like to do that. But for a certain reason, maybe, yeah, I have to do it.

LIM: Fung says she was keen to push musical boundaries, melding a Kazakh folk song with electronic music to produce an avant-garde sound. He says she's a serious artist, and he enjoyed working with her.

FUNG: She has, in a way, a double personality. In her private self, she was quite humble, and then she was very considerate to the people who were working with her. But on the other hand, you could feel a certain power in her. And she's sometimes quite critical on some people. But she was a nice person.

LIM: She's Xi Jinping's second wife, following a divorce. In an unguarded moment, Peng told state-run media that when she first met him, she found him rustic and old-looking. She tested him by turning up in big army trousers to see how much he cared about appearances. Not much, apparently. He's said it took him just 40 minutes to decide she was to be his wife. They have one daughter, who studies at Harvard.

Earlier this year, Sarah Lande from Muscatine, Ohio, sat next to Peng Liyuan at an official banquet.

SARAH LANDE: She seemed to be alive and beautiful. Eager to talk, you know, eager to discuss things. She spoke some English, and she seemed very interesting. She was saying that she doesn't perform much any more, but she works with a fine arts academy.

LIM: Peng Liyuan's other high-profile role has been as an AIDS ambassador.

LIYUAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Being asked to do this, she says in this ad, is the best New Years present I could get. She began in 2006, when there was great stigma surrounding HIV in China.

Johanna Hood at the Australian National University has studied her role as one of the first Chinese celebrities to become the public face of a campaign.

JOHANNA HOOD: Definitely, from a political standpoint, yes, it was risky. She handled it, I think, very well, in that she never engages with the politics of HIV. It's always this comment of her acting as a mother, that she can contribute as a mother and that she wants to work with children. So I think it's been managed quite well in what could have been a very risky situation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

LIM: Here, Peng sings with AIDS orphans. Last year, she stepped up her role, becoming a World Health Organization ambassador for tuberculosis and AIDS - this, even as her husband was heading for the top.

Johanna Hood says it would be a loss of face for her to step down now. But China's first ladies have traditionally played a supporting role, not much seen in public. So could China be paving the way for a new kind of first lady?

HOOD: I really do hope so. She's an incredibly talented woman, she's very well-educated, she speaks well, she's knowledgeable, she's powerful. And she is one of, I think, the perfect people to pave the way for a new role model.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIYUAN: (Sung in foreign language)

LIM: But China's image-makers have already been at work. Gone are the fabulous outfits. One of her most recent appearances was in military uniform, singing about the importance of ordinary people to the Communist Party. It's notable that Peng hasn't yet had any high-profile engagements with her husband; given her popularity, perhaps there's a fear she could outshine the Communist Party leader.

Louisa Lim NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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