The ‘First Lady Soft Power Politics’ of Peng Liyuan

June 2, 2018


Two earthquakes devastated areas in Sichuan, Wenchuan in 2008 and Lushan in 2013, but elicited very different public responses to the Red Cross Society of China (CRC) efforts to fundraise. This post explores the significance and role of celebrity, gender and politics in a petition involving a Chinese celebrity. The petition called for Peng Liyuan, China’s folk-singing diva, major general, CPPCC member, WHO ambassador and guomu 国母, lit. mother of the country or First Lady (diyi furen 第一夫人), to assume a leadership role in and rehabilitate the CRC following Lushan.


Well then, who is most suited to lead the CRC? I feel China’s “First Lady” Peng Liyuan is most suitable, and we can think of N-# of reasons that can attest to this (Chen, 2013)


As I suggest, local understandings of gender and celebrity help make meaning of the positioning and reception of Peng within the petition, and suggest how her broader engagement with inequality, and disaster in China is perceived as trustworthy, despite her deep connection to the party state.


Wenchuan (2008) and Lushan (2013) Responses: Similarities and Differences

On April 20th 2013, a 7.0 earthquake caused death, destruction and homelessness in Lushan County (China Central Television, 2013). Across China, individuals, celebrities, corporations and university, international, non-and semi-governmental organizations donated resources and aided rescue and reconstruction efforts. Peng donated over 200,000 RMB, and together with her daughter, was active in morale boosting visits and performances (CCTV 7, 2008; Zhang 2013). Reports stressed their long week in devastated areas, and how both blended in like regular folk.


It was not the first time the Chinese nation mobilized rapidly for earthquake relief. The Wenchuan earthquake caused the greatest-ever recorded human, environmental and socioeconomic loss (Daniell, 2013; Xinhua News Agency, 2008) and the largest amount ever donated in China’s history. The CRC, one of three organizations then authorized to fundraise, received 41,200,000,000 RMB in one month (Sina gongyi, 2008).


However, by Lushan there were major differences, particularly related to fundraising. The CRC was able to fundraise only a fraction of 2008 amounts (Xia, 2018) and was subject to intense criticism. The IFRC issued a stern press release calling for moderation (Marcus, Fuller and Chippendate, 2013) after 140,000 netizens (wangmin网民) posted “piss-off” (gun滚), and thumbs-down emoticons on the CRC website until it was blocked for comment (Sohu IT, 2013). Discussions concerned trust (xinren信任), governance (guanli管理), responsibility (zeren责任), accountability and independent regulation (disanfang jigou jianguan第三方机构监管).


Set within debates about the credibility of the CRC, the online call for Peng to lead a reform of the CRC was issued several days following Lushan (Chen, 2013; Luo, 2013). Its news was widely discussed and popularly endorsed (China Times, 2013). For reasons I can only speculate, Peng did not assume a role, the petition’s discussions were not revived in the months following the earthquake, while instead the CRC vice Chairperson promised to ‘turn around China’s black cross’ (zhuanfan heishizihui转翻黑十字会) (Ma and Kan, 2013). She was quietly replaced in 2014 for unclear reasons (CG/JL, 2014; Netease 网易, 2014).


CRC Declining Credibility

The CRC is guided directly by the party, and thus it is largely without public accountability mechanisms (Ma and Kan, 2013; Mao, 2013) or meaningful ties to the IFRC (Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, 1993). Its reputation is key to its fundraising and disaster response, which has suffered since public investigations examined lavish dinners (Xinhua News Agency, 2011), disappearing donations, misspending and inefficiency (Lau, 2013), unclear contract awarding mechanisms (Liu and Yang, 2014), and the Guo Meimei incident (Guo Meimei shijian郭美美事件) (Jiang, 2011; NTD TV, 2013). The resulting skepticism caused widespread calls for an official investigation into the CRC and improved charitable sector reporting.  


Peng Liyuan’s Credentials and Many Turns

There are factors which help partly explain the decline in donations to the CRC, such as new technologies, online discussions of organizational reliability (Zhihuyonghu, 2013), and changes authorizing certain foundations to fundraise (Wu and Wu, 2011; backchina, 2013; US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, 2013). Yet none has explanatory power over why Peng Liyuan was the subject of the petition:


I sincerely hope that Peng Liyuan will change the Chinese Red Cross to be more transparent, and will rebuild the [now tainted] image of Chinese philanthropy (backchina, 2013).


A look to Peng’s philanthropic (cishan慈善) portfolio and the widening role for celebrities in disasters and politics in China, however, provides a better understanding.


Peng and other celebrities’ philanthropic profiles are shaped by the party state. Celebrities “get twice the result with half the effort” (taxblog, 2007) as they are invited to endorse particular issues while exposed to high levels of regulation (China Daily, 2010), a technique which continues the tradition of enfolding celebrities into the party apparatus as moral models, revolutionary singers, and entertainers (Edwards and Jeffreys, 2010). These practices continue today, although awarding ambassadorial (dashi 大使) titles is new.


Since the 1980s, Peng became revered for her folk singing, military entertainment and CCTV appearances during the Spring Festival. Her public service was and remains directed at troop entertainment and morale boosting in under-privileged populations and disaster areas (Liu, 2011).


Celebrity philanthropy receives considerable attention, and Peng’s is no exception. Since the early 2000s, she has become known for her extensive portfolio covering migrant health and acceptance, diseases, stigma, and anti-smoking. She works with local and international organizations and celebrities, appearing in PSAs, posters and events (China Ministry of Health and China Central Television Advertising Department, 2005; Gu, 2012). As Madame Chairman, and in contrast to many previous first ladies, she accompanies her husband, President Xi, on international visits as Peng “fever” (re 热) rages domestically (Dan, 2013; Pollack, 2013).


I’m moved. Our country still has hope! (Li, 2013)


We are so fortunate to have Madame Chairman Peng Liyuan! The video is simple and genuine, but what’s even more genuine is the [her] human heart. (Overthemountain, 2013)


Very true and very touching. I’m filled with admiration for Peng Liyuan (Zhang, 2013)


The approximately 300 items I gathered from the Internet using wechat, bing, google, safari and chrome for this post generally reinforce Peng’s human touch, classy style, empathy, virtue, maternal nature and recognize her success as an engaging public figure, humanitarian, and new First Lady (Chen, 2012; Zhang, 2012; Chao, 2010; backchina, 2013; GuHantai Net, 2013; Mao, 2013). They tell us about Peng’s local credibility and history, gender, power and public relations, and her configuration within public hopes for bettering China’s future. As Fang (2013) insists,


She finally appears in the role of First Lady, which is really great! Although everybody these days is cursing official corruption, you also can’t deny there is someone with spine who helps others and is holding up our country and actually in the party.


All of these were key to her nomination in the petition, yet, they tell less about important, underlying causes of disaster response and the use of celebrity governance.


Rethinking Peng Through Celebrity, Gender and Politics

Peng’s public identity as a caring mother, capable woman, concerned humanitarian, military entertainer and political figure, allows alternative forms of credibility and connection to be forged with different kinds of audiences. In many instances, Peng is ideal for smoothing over disasters (many which implicate the CCP), despite her connection to the party through her own positions and those of her husband. Some accounts recognize Peng’s official roles, but they disengage her political reality due to her success in the tradition of time-honored moral models and maxims, what Joan Judge (2001, p.768) describes as a “prior cultural matrix” that has for the last centuries shaped China’s new nationalisms, identities and possibilities for women in society. These include ideas about virtue and talent, both of which are mixed within Peng’s popular appeal and embodiment of new China—economic acumen, quality citizen and power—“Compassionate, humanitarian, charitable, all qualities appropriate of women... Additionally she has the ability to mobilize wealth to support the charitable and philanthropic arenas” (Chen, 2013). Images of corrupt and entitled officials (tan guan 贪官) that have appeared in China for centuries, and/or spoilt and unthinking and audacious Guo Meimei, also provide an ideal contrast to Peng’s hopeful humanitarianism and caring celebrity persona, a reliable feature of her public engagement for years. She is known for the good she does and who she is not.


Shaped by ideas about a national Chinese moral character wherein charitable action is being modern, celebrity philanthropy has increased alongside declining trust in state and non-state actors to serve the people they are intended to. The problems of the CRC and its troubles with reliability, accountability and managerial acumen reflect broader debates about the quality of public and private charitable organizations and actors, reconstruction, and socioeconomic and political inequality official culture depends upon (Sorace, 2014).


Although Peng’s celebrity is at first glance uncontroversial and characterized by superficialities (i.e. her wardrobe), her trajectory and reception by Chinese society is of interest as it occurs at a point of increasing public dissatisfaction over such inequality and lack-of-transparency on the dawn of China’s new modernity and dreams. Peng remains largely endeared to the public despite the increasingly harsh tactics Xi’s government is pursuing to maintain political and social stability. Her visibility has become tied to moments of political importance and crisis, or disaster and relief, be these regarding health, inequality or injustice—areas the state should be accountable for. The official and popular portrayal of Peng’s role is an apolitical one, regardless of the soft power that is clearly involved with the uptake of her image and name in disasters and discussions of them.


Thus, understanding Peng as a gendered figure and the state’s role in her celebrity affairs, helps to make sense of her popular, frequently apolitical guise in contemporary China. Within this matrix, Peng’s moral fortitude and trustworthiness, accrued from her experience as a female celebrity humanitarian, furnishes her with credentials seen as fit for reforming what is perceived as a corrupt state institution, the CRC, from within the very state system she is part. Although the use of cultural icons to maintain party ideology is not new, this instance of popular support for Peng is evidence of ‘first lady soft power politics’ and calls for a broader engagement with how celebrity is increasingly useful as a governance strategy, and not just for recuperating the legitimacy of subsidiary state institutions and mis-deeds.

Johanna Hood is an associate professor at Roskilde University, Denmark and the recipient of an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Research Award. Her research interests include public health communication, the commodification and donation of blood in China, inequality and celebrity politics in China. She is author of HIV/AIDS, Health and the Media in China: Imagined Immunity through Racialized Disease (Routledge, 2011 [2013]). Image credit: Shanghaiist.







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