Xi’s Wife to Play Role in Charm Offensive

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US presidents have long deployed their wives to broaden their appeal. Now Xi Jinping, China's incoming head of state, is getting in on the act.

When Mr Xi travels to South Africa later this month, he will use his folk singer wife as part of a charm offensive to build Chinese "soft power".

Peng Liyuan, famous in China for her fiery performances of patriotic songs, will have her own speaking engagement as her husband attends the Brics summit in Durban, three people familiar with the plans told the Financial Times.

"She will make an independent appearance," said a friend of Ms Peng. Another person briefed on plans for the trip added: "She can help China build soft power."

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The move underscores the sense that Mr Xi is treading a different path from his predecessor, Hu Jintao, who was known for his stiff and scripted style.

Ms Peng could become the only Chinese first lady to take a significant international role since Soong May-ling, wife of Chiang Kai-shek, helped her husband secure US support for his crumbling regime during the second world war.

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Jiang Qing, the Shanghai starlet who became Mao Zedong's fourth wife, became a powerful political figure at home. But after the Communist party purged her following the murderous Cultural Revolution, the wives of Chinese leaders have been almost invisible.

From John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama, US presidents have used their spouses to help improve their image at home and abroad. But the decision by the easy-going Mr Xi to break with Chinese tradition signals his recognition that China must find new ways to make friends, as its global rise triggers fear and suspicion around the world.

"Just as China needs to learn more about the world, so does the world need to learn more about China," Mr Xi said in November, after becoming head of the Chinese Communist party.

Under Mr Hu's decade-long tenure, China became a global power faster than many expected. It gained influence and confidence as its economy soared – overtaking Japan to become the world's second largest – while the US and Europe were shaken by the financial crisis.

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But over the same period, China's neighbors have become more concerned about its growing naval presence and increasingly assertive stance on territorial disputes. Washington, meanwhile, frets about Chinese cyber attacks and intellectual property theft, and China's growing presence in Africa has provoked fears that its hunger for resources could undermine local development and the environment.

Alistair Michie, a British citizen who advises Chinese officials on public diplomacy, said China has "not been telling its story" and that Mr Xi plans to tackle that issue.

"His foreign policy will be markedly different in style – you can already tell from his intolerance for bureaucracy and his propensity for decision making," said Mr Michie. "He can be a catalyst for change throughout the foreign policy apparatus."