The People’s Republic of China is not known for having prominent first ladies. The last one to capture the public eye, Jiang Qing, Mao’s final wife, was sentenced to life in prison for her role in the Cultural Revolution. This trend, though, is set to change next month when Xi Jinping officially becomes the president of the country and his wife, acclaimed folk singer Peng Liyuan, becomes first lady. While Peng is not likely to wield the sort of power held by either Jiang or most American first ladies, the combination of her fame and closeness to the PRC’s preeminent leader with her public health activism could prove a boon for organizations, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that are seeking to realize a China that is both healthier domestically and more active in efforts to secure public health around the globe.
Peng Liyuan is perhaps more famous than her husband, at least within China’s borders. She’s one of country’s most celebrated folk singers, a long-time regular on the televised Chinese New Year spectacular that draws an annual viewership of around 700 million people. She’s also a major general in the People’s Liberation Army, which she joined in 1980 to work as an “arts and culture warrior.” But it’s her role as an international public health ambassador that is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of her rise to first lady.
In January 2006, Peng was named a Chinese Ministry of Health Ambassador for HIV/AIDS prevention. In March 2007, she became a National Ambassador for Tuberculosis control and prevention. And in June 2011, the World Health Organization made her an official WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. Peng has also been active in anti-smoking campaigns – she is an ambassador for the Chinese Association on Tobacco Control and appeared with Bill Gates to promote World No Tobacco Day in May 2012.
One of the more interesting aspects of Peng’s public health activism is that it has actually increased at a time when she has been widely reported to have moved to tone down her image as a star. Since her husband’s 2007 elevation to the Politburo Standing Committee she has made fewer public appearances and has not appeared at the Chinese New Year Gala at all. In contrast, nearly all of her various public health ambassadorships have been initiated during Xi’s time at the paramount of the Chinese power structure. Furthermore, her first public appearance after her husband was selected as the Communist Party’s new leader came at an event on World AIDS Day 2012. Peng starred in a public service announcement aired at the event that was designed to promote an end to the discrimination of those suffering from HIV/AIDS, particularly children afflicted with the illness.
Peng’s power should not be overstated. She is not her husband and numerous obstacles stand in the way of her playing an active role in Chinese politics and governance, among them recent tradition and chauvinism in the Party ranks. Nevertheless, her fame and access to the Chinese leadership both bode well for the myriad of public health advocates looking to develop stronger ties with PRC authorities. With this in mind, her installation as China’s newest first lady offers a wellspring of hope for those individuals and organizations seeking both a healthier China and an increasingly constructive Chinese role in funding and supporting global public health regimes.
Published February 12th, 2013