Peng Liyuan, wife of China’s president, has been named UNESCO ‘special envoy for the advancement of girls and women’s education’, a first for Chinese ‘First Ladies’, who have until now been invisible. Far from being invisible, Peng can claim to hold her own — at least in terms of media publicity —against the original ‘First Lady’. Her views, however, haven’t been heard much, which is not the case with Michelle Obama, whose visit here created a stir.
While the media devoted a lot of space to the two women’s sartorial styles, it was Michelle Obama’s speech to students of Peking University that created a flutter. Countries are “stronger and more prosperous when the voices and opinions of all their citizens can be heard,’’ she said, referring to internet freedom. Of course, the official media simply omitted this sentence. However, Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, was abuzz with it, especially after a professor at the university posted on his account that a student had asked the First Lady: “Isn’t the US strong because its intelligence agency is listening to the voice of its people? What exactly is the difference between listening and monitoring?’’
As it turned out, such a question was never asked, as those in the audience vouched. However, many wished it had indeed been asked. The day the First Lady made these remarks, The New York Times and Der Spiegel reported that the National Security Agency, had infiltrated China’s telecom and internet company, Huawei.
Interestingly, while the official media blanked out this part of the speech, the censors issued directions to downplay netizens’ comments on some other parts of Michelle Obama’s visit, such as her order for her first family dinner in Beijing, at one of the capital’s famous Peking roast duck restaurants. Reports said that 17 dishes were ordered for 13 persons —not unusual in China, where several side dishes are a rule. Comments on the Great Wall being cleared for the First Lady — photographs of the walk showed not a soul there except for her and her two daughters — were also ordered to be restricted. Funnily enough, the censors even wanted a clampdown on comments on the uniform of the Beijing school she visited with the president’s wife. The blue-and-white track suit worn by the students is common in schools across the country; but some netizens ridiculed it as ‘ugly’.
While comparisons are still being made between the American First Lady’s preference for bright colours in contrast to her Chinese counterpart’s preference for sober ones, it is the latter’s use of a Chinese phone that has created an even stronger buzz. On her very first official visit abroad with President Xi Jinping last year, Peng Liquan wore a low-profile Chinese label, making it famous. Since then, she has often been seen wearing traditional Chinese silk blouses. On a recent visit to the Netherlands, her embroidered Chinese cloak and the president’s Mao-style suit drew applause at home, with the China Daily even carrying out an opinion poll on whether it should be mandatory for officials to wear Chinese suits “when engaging in foreign affairs’’. Eighty per cent voted yes. However, what really made nationalist hearts swell with pride was the First Lady’s use of a Chinese smartphone to take photographs while watching a football match in Berlin last week, flanked by her husband and the CEO of Volkswagen. “Apple Inc out, home brands in’’ said one headline. The phone she held was a Nubia Z5 Mini, costing 1,500 yuan (Rs 15,000), manufactured by a Shenzhen company.
Last year, Peng was photographed using an iPhone on an official visit to Mexico, a faux pas, considering that Apple had been receiving flak for its poor after-sales service in China. Obviously, the First Lasy was quick to learn how to win over her people.