China's carefully-orchestrated Communist Party musical, which is whimsically titled The 18th Communist Congress and contains neither music nor Hugh Jackman, will convene next month to name the country's imminent new president, Xi Jinping. Every detail has been scripted and rehearsed, but party leaders are still fretting over how best to utilize Peng Liyuan, Xi's wife and China's first-lady-to-be. Should she keep a low-profile, like her predecessors? Or, with a sterling resume that includes opera-singing at the Lincoln Center and an ambassador stint with the World Health Organization in the fight against tuberculosis and HIV, should Peng become the first prominent first lady since Mao Tse's prominent wife drew the ire of China's press decades ago, earning the unfortunate nickname "White-Boned Demon" for her alleged participation in counter-revolutionary activity?
The Los Angeles Times reports that image makers within China's Communist Party are very writers'-room, head-scratchingly conflicted about how large a role Peng should play in Xi Jinping's ascension to the presidency. That's because, according to Mao biographer Ross Terrill,
In China, there's still this strain of thought, particularly in the countryside, that there are two possible roles for a female: the woman is either servile … or an empress type. There's still a feeling that women can lead men astray, especially in affairs of the state.
That pervading wariness of women in power has made the Communist Party very reluctant to push Peng, spotless as her record may be, into the spotlight, though public sentiment may be shifting faster than party bosses are able to pivot. An early October issue of a celebrity magazine called OK China featured a huge seven-page spread on the Obamas, and according to OK's editor-in-chief Feng Chuxuan, the magazine has responded to reader requests and published stories about the Kennedy family women, former French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, Kate Middleton, and Princess Diana. The magazine has not field any story requests for China's new first lady, but that's not necessarily because the public isn't interested in Peng — according to Feng, readers "know that there are no [approved] channels for such stories."
The Bo Xilai scandal — in which the ousted Politburo member's wife, Gu Kailai, was recently sentenced to death for poisoning a British businessman — certainly hasn't helped rehabilitate the public image of China's political wives as schemers, but Peng's reputation is so far untainted by scandal, and people in China are sort of fed-up with women either being relegated to the sidelines in public discourse, or being cast as Lucretia-esque manipulators vying for more political power. The more often Chinese readers see stories about how wonderfully intelligent and charming and [other adjective expressing sincere adulation] Michelle Obama is, the hungrier they get for positive portrayals of accomplished women from their own country, women like Peng, who, despite her reported charm and affability, currently has her name blocked on China's version of Twitter and only churns up a handful of search engine returns.