Saturday 24 February 2018

First lady sang to Tiananmen troops

A computer screen shows sites displaying an undated photo of China's new first lady Peng Liyuan in younger days singing to martial law troops (AP)
A computer screen shows sites displaying an undated photo of China's new first lady Peng Liyuan in younger days singing to martial law troops (AP)
Peng Liyuan, China's first lady, was seen in a picture singing to troops following the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters (AP)

A photo of China's new first lady singing to martial-law troops following the bloody 1989 military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square has flickered across Chinese cyberspace this week.

The image of Peng Liyuan - seen and shared by outside observers - was swiftly scrubbed from the country's internet before it could generate discussion online, but it revived a memory the leadership prefers to suppress and shows one of the challenges in presenting Mrs Peng on the world stage as the softer side of China.

China has no recent precedent for the role of first lady and faces a tricky balance at home. The leadership wants Mrs Peng to show the human side of her husband, new 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 Mrs 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 in Tiananmen Square, contrasts with her appearances this week in trendy suits and coiffed hair while touring Russia and Africa with Mr Xi, waving to her enthusiastic hosts.

Mrs 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 Mr Xi at home and abroad. But 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 Mr Liu four years later, radical Red Guards forced Mrs Wang to don the same dress and paraded her through the streets as a shameful example of capitalist corruption.

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 weeks-long 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 Mrs Peng's obligations as a member of a performance troupe in the all-powerful People's Liberation Army. At the time, her husband was party chief of an eastern city.

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?"

Press Association

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