Time for duo to retire First Lady roles

CHINA'S FIRST LADY: Ms Peng is a major-general in the People's Liberation Army and a celebrity singer.
Time for duo to retire First Lady roles

HER U.S. COUNTERPART: Mrs Obama is a Harvard-educated lawyer who had served as her family's primary breadwinner.


    Mar 21, 2014

    Time for duo to retire First Lady roles

    I THOUGHT United States First Lady Michelle Obama made the right call last summer when she chose a weekend with her children over a faux-intimate, first-time meeting with her Chinese counterpart, Ms Peng Liyuan.

    But the inevitable couldn't be avoided forever and, yesterday, the pair would have been acquainted here in Beijing.

    It is, by design, a fabulously anachronistic affair.

    Ms Peng will take Mrs Obama, her daughters and her mother on tours of a school and the Forbidden City, and then cap the day with a private meal and show (the Obamas will then continue their China tour without her).

    No reporters will accompany Mrs Obama to Beijing, and no interviews will be granted during a visit that the White House insists is non-political, a mere "people-to-people exchange".

    The Chinese news media, of course, will do as it's told - which, in this case, means taking lots of photos.

    The net result will be a stage-managed news void ensuring that the most covered aspect of the trip will be what the two First Ladies wore.

    It's already started: On Monday, the state-owned English language China Daily ran a slideshow headlined: "Fashionable First Ladies: Peng Liyuan vs Michelle Obama."

    This is precisely how the Chinese would like it. Ms Peng, after all, is the first Chinese First Lady since Jiang Qing - Chairman Mao Zedong's homicidal wife - to have a public profile of any kind.

    Last March, she became a national sensation when she appeared arm-in-arm with her husband in Russia. She looked great - much of the national discussion focused on her clothes.

    Since then, the Chinese public, and especially the Chinese government and its state media, have been anxious to see her photographed next to Mrs Obama, the gold standard by which global First Ladies are measured.

    To a real extent, then, this visit is little more than the White House's positive response to a long-desired Chinese photo op.

    Of course, sometimes that's the nature of diplomacy, and whether we like it or not, the wives of world leaders are occasionally its accessories.

    But there is something uniquely demeaning in the Obama-Peng meeting, and it largely has to do with the pre-presidential lives of the two formidable women who must attend it.

    After all, Mrs Obama, 50, is a Harvard-educated lawyer who served as her family's primary breadwinner while her husband toiled in a state legislature.

    Ms Peng, 51, is a major-general in the People's Liberation Army and a celebrity singer who was famous across China when her husband was working in backwater Communist Party outposts.

    If there were two First Ladies capable of more, it is these two.

    Family, career choices and circumstances mean that they'll have to stick, instead, to the symbolic roles they have both accepted.

    Nonetheless, as the two First Ladies posed silently for the cameras yesterday, it might be worth asking whether it's time to retire those roles altogether.