A photo of new first lady Peng Liyuan in her younger days, singing to martial law troops after the 1989 military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, flickered across cyberspace this week.
It was swiftly scrubbed from China’s internet before it could generate discussion online.
But the image – seen and shared by outside observers – revived a memory the leadership prefers to suppress and shows one of the challenges in presenting Peng on the world stage as the country’s softer side.
The leadership wants Peng to show the human side of President 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 top party leaders.
The photo shows 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.
It contrasts with her appearances this week in trendy suits and coiffed hair while touring Russia and Africa with Xi.
Kelley Currie, a human rights expert for the pro-democracy Project 2049 Institute in Arlington, Virginia, said: “I think that we have a lot of people hoping that because Xi Jinping walks around without a tie on and his wife is a singer who travels with him on trips that maybe we’re dealing with a new kind of leader, but I think these images remind people that this is the same party.
“It’s using new tools and new techniques, for the same purposes – to preserve its own power.”
Peng, 50, a major general in the People’s Liberation Army best known for soaring renditions of patriotic odes to the military and the party, kept a low profile as her husband prepared to take over as party chief. Her re-emergence has been accompanied by a blaze of publicity in state-run media hailing her beauty and charm, in a bid to harness her popularity to build support for Xi at home and abroad.
“The photo probably has a negative impact more so internationally than domestically,” said Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at City University of Hong Kong.
He said more scrutiny of Peng is likely and such photos could raise questions about Xi’s interest in reforms.
He added: “It has been several months now that Xi Jinping has assumed the top leadership role and we have found no indicator that he is interested in this stage to push serious political reform.”
The image is a snapshot of the back cover of a 1989 issue of a publicly available military magazine PLA Pictorial, according to Sun Li, a reporter.
He said he took a photo of it on his cell phone several years ago when it was inadvertently posted on his microblog.
Sun said he quickly deleted it and had no idea how it resurfaced on the internet years later.
Warren Sun, a military historian at Monash University in Australia, had little doubt about the authenticity of the photo. He cited a 1992 academic report as saying that after the crackdown, Peng performed a song titled The Most Beloved People in a salute to the martial law troops.
In an indication of Peng’s appeal on the mainland, a man whose 19-year-old son was killed in the Tiananmen crackdown said he bears no grudges.
“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.”Source: SCMP – “First lady Peng Liyuan and the photo that’s best forgotten”
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