China’s Michelle Obama: a new kind of power chick

SUNDAYTELElogoChina’s new first lady, Peng Liyuan, is leading a fashion renaissance in China, defiantly wearing Chinese designer outfits on the world stage. “National Mother” copycat handbags and scarves are now for sale on China’s online shopping site Taobao; a glut of eager customers has crashed one Chinese label’s website and the Chinese internet is buzzing with daily observations on Peng’s poise and glamour.

It seems most, if not all, of Peng’s ensembles were specifically created for her by Ma Ke, a publicity-shy and eco-conscious Chinese fashion designer whose couture label Wuyong (or Useless) has been applauded by western observers.

Ma Ke also has a hand in the designs at Exception de Mixmind, a ready-to-wear label with more than 100 shops in China, owned by her ex-husband. Chinese interest in the brand soared when Ma Ke was found to be designing for Peng Liyuan, and the Exception de Mixmind label was suddenly a must-have.

It would be a brave Chinese fashion entrepreneur who tried to maximise profit by cashing in on a connection with the President’s wife, so silence reigned for a time. But eventually Exception conceded, in a statement on the internet, that some of Peng Liyuan’s clothes and been designed and manufactured by both Exception and Wuyong, with the careful addendum that these clothes would not be be available to the public. “On this occasion the design and manufacturing are specialised and custom-made and the items are not for sale publicly,” the statement said.

Peng Liyuan has apparently been wearing Ma Ke’s creations for more than ten years, and she asked the designer to create outfits specifically for her first overseas tour as the President’s wife – to Russia and Africa earlier this year. “I did not feel surprise or any pressure,” Ma Ke told the China Daily newspaper. “We’ve been friends for many years and I know she loves and understands my designs.”

Ma Ke’s designs have been on display this week, as China’s new president, Xi Jinping, and his stylish wife Peng, have waved and smiled their way across four nations. Peng’s wardrobe is filled with tailored Chinese designer suits and double-breasted jackets in an array of seductive hues, with floating silk scarves and upstanding collars, or cheong-sam style outfits in rich brocades. Xi wears ties that carefully complement the shades of her outfits.

Dr Zhu Jiangan, a professor at Hong Kong University’s faculty of politics and public administration, thinks Peng Liyuan’s good looks and stylish get-ups are a credit not only to her husband, President Xi, but to all China’s new leaders and Peng’s image is much admired by ordinary Chinese citizens. “It’s positive,” Dr Zhu says. “The general feeling is very positive. I don’t think people are jealous of her. She’s very careful; her clothes were actually made by domestic factories; they’re not like famous brands.”

It’s a new look for the Chinese leadership, often seen as a dull and robotic clique of men who work hard to keep the restive Chinese population shackled, with largely retiring wives who stay well in the background.

By contrast, Peng is centre-stage on this tour, and a “Loving Li” fan-club has sprung up on Sina Weibo, the Chinese Twitter-like social network that has at least 300 million account-holders. “I’m proud that my motherland has such a first lady like Peng Liyuan,” posted Confused Little Pig 28 earlier this week.

A well-known singer in China, once regularly performing in shimmering television extravaganzas, Peng has been applauded for her soprano renditions of folk-songs including “My Motherland” and “On The Plains of Hope”.

A major-general in the People’s Liberation Army, she has been described by, China’s state-run news agency, as a “soldier of the arts”, and in the past the 50-year-old native of Shandong province in China’s north has often been seen in an elegantly-fitted military uniform. She has sung rapturously about the People’s Liberation Army: in the lively “Laundry Song” for example, she extols “the dear PLA; the saving star of the Communist party”.

Earlier in his career, Beijing-born Xi, son of one of the founding fathers of China’s communist party, was reputedly best-known in China as Peng Liyuan’s husband. Turning 60 next Sunday (subs June 16), his first marriage ended in divorce within a few years, and in 1987 he married Peng.

They have one daughter, who is reportedly studying at Harvard in the US under a fake name. Surrounded by Chinese bodyguards at all times, Xi Mingze is something of a celebrity in her own right – someone has even gone to the trouble of setting up a fake Twitter account in her real name. Quite obviously false, (unless it is a double-bluff by a pert young person), the account has a number of links to articles about her family, and about Harvard, and many that are critical of China, including some from Australian newspapers.

Xi and Peng’s grand Americas tour this week has been seen as a triumph of soft diplomacy in China. In Trinidad and Tobago, Peng Liyuan tried playing a steel drum; in Costa Rica, President Xi picked a flower and held it for his wife to sniff; in Mexico, Peng hugged a child patient in a hospital. Finally in the US, Xi got down to business in an informal summit with the US president Barack Obama.

The tour coincided with an emotional anniversary. This week huge crowds in Hong Kong braved bucketing rain to gather for a candlelight vigil commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre 24 years ago – the only place in China where such a mass commemoration is permitted. This week, too, a photo emerged on the internet which was apparently taken of Peng Liyuan in a military uniform, singing to massed and helmeted Chinese troops immediately after the bloody Tiananmen military crackdown. Copied from a book, the photo was rapidly deleted from the Chinese internet, “disappeared”, long before it could generate much heat.

Chinese censors have been hard at work, ensuring the picture of the first couple remains a glowing one. One rapidly reposted microblog has been equally rapidly deleted: “In the 70s, a girl’s dream was to be a female soldier; in the 80s, a girl’s dream was to be a university student; in the 90s, a girl’s dream was to be a star; in the 00s, a girl’s dream was to marry a high-ranking official; in the 10s, girls watching Zhen Huan Zhuan (‘Empresses in the Palace’, a popular period soap opera) want to be a queen; and all of these have been miraculously realised in a woman: Peng Liyuan!”

With Phoebe Peng