ChinaFile: Everyone Wants China's First Lady

In principle, Peng Liyuan is promoting Chinese fashion by wearing it. But getting her to support a program is an entirely different matter.

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Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan

Photo By Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan

Photo By Sergei Karpov/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis

BEIJING — Even before Peng Liyuan became the first lady officially and publicly, Vogue China’s Angelica Cheung was working on an interview. Last week I met with Neiman Marcus, and the discussion also turned to the newly anointed first lady.

The question came up: “Wouldn’t she love to support a program that helps Chinese designers go international?”

It’s a loaded question. In principle, the first lady is promoting Chinese fashion by wearing it. The buzz she created for the Chinese ready-to-wear brand Exception de Mixmind is phenomenal. Exception went from a niche brand to a household name overnight.

But, and this is a big BUT, getting her support for your program is an entirely different matter. China is an authoritarian state where the power base does not support anyone and everyone supports the power base. If the first lady wants to put her weight behind Chinese fashion, most likely she will create her own program through an official Chinese agency, an entity such as the China National Garment Association.

There are three reasons for this — other than the simple fact that in China, official power normally does not play second fiddle to anyone else’s program.

First of all, it’s the vetting process. This is normal anywhere; the first lady has a reputation to protect. Just to give you two examples: About 12 years ago, the magazine I ran had to change its name from LOOK to iLOOK. The issue came up when we wanted to put a princeling (a term used to describe descendents of prominent party members) on the cover. Her mother initiated a vetting process about Look’s background. Unfortunately, the name of the already defunct U.S. magazine Look came up. Apparently, in an old 1950s document, probably just gathering dust in a file drawer, was a list of anti-communist magazines banned from China. Look Magazine was on that list. Not only were we forbidden to put the princeling on the cover, we were also told to prove that we were not a licensee or in any way connected with the American Look Magazine. How to prove non-association with a nonexistent magazine turned out to be a very difficult task. It’s like proving you are not related to a dead person; exhuming the body and DNA would be the only way.

Proving non-association with dead companies would be even more difficult than that. To make it even more impossible, the Chinese authorities did not specify what they actually require as proof. So not only did we not get the princeling for the cover shoot, we also had to change our name. I get a lot of compliments these days for the foresight to add the “i” in front of LOOK; it’s so much more 21st century. In reality it happened because we had some fancy ideas about working with Red Aristocracy.

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Second, the first lady’s husband is waging the most fierce anticorruption campaign in modern Chinese history. Any association of his wife with a commercial enterprise is probably going to play into the hands of his political adversaries. In China, you are guilty until proven innocent. In the Internet age, particularly with Chinese social media hungry for blood, it only takes one photo to be seen as guilty, and by the time you can prove yourself free of any commercial objective, the game is already over. “The cucumber dish is already cold,” as a local Chinese would say.

Third, Chinese culture has always had a hard time dealing with its first ladies. It’s an historic bias. Starting in the Tang Dynasty in 600 A.D., Wu Zetian was the first woman empress of China. History written by Western scholars of China will tell you that she was a great ruler and brought about great prosperity in China. (See Why the West Rules — for Now, by Ian Morris.) On the other hand, Chinese history books will tell you that Wu Zetian was a vicious woman prone to fits of jealousy, so much so that she killed and pickled other concubines who vied for her husband’s favor. Both were true probably, it is what you choose to remember. The same goes for Empress Dowager. Western scholars usually give her the credit for trying to make China into a constitutional democracy, but Chinese scholars would emphasize that she spent the entire Chinese naval budget on building a park to celebrate her own birthday. The park is called Yuan Ming Yuan. It was burned down by Allied Troops during the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion. It is now called the Summer Palace, a major tourist attraction, should you ever come to Beijing.

In recent Chinese history, women don’t fare too well either. Mao’s last wife, Jiang Qing, was condemned as a member of the infamous Gang of Four, who are credited with the horror of the Cultural Revolution, a mass campaign that killed millions in China. Jiang Qing was a very pretty actress from Shanghai in the 1930s. Western writing (see Comrade Chiang Ch’ing, by Roxane Witke) would describe her as an ambitious and passionate woman, but Chinese are quite willing to categorize her as evil and insane. A more recent case is Bo Xilai’s wife Gu Kailai. She was accused of murdering the British businessman Neil Heywood in a recent trial. She was found guilty, of course, and received a commuted death sentence. Gu was a lawyer. She wrote a book called Going to Court in the USA and Winning, a story of her experience helping a Chinese company win an antidumping charge in the U.S. She is also rather pretty.

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