China’s Michelle Obama

Peng Liyuan is the first prominent Chinese first lady in decades. But does she matter?

SHANGHAI — Is China having a first lady moment? It would certainly seem so. Peng Liyuan, a.k.a. Mrs. Xi Jinping, the wife of China's new president, has emerged swiftly and seemingly decisively, into an overtly more prominent first-lady role than we've seen for some time in China. To be fair she has the track record to be a front-and-center Spouse No. 1 -- she's long been a soprano singer of highly patriotic tunes with a voice that can hit the high notes and shatter glass. Her regular appearances on the long-running, and mostly just plain long, state TV traditional spring festival variety show mean she is universally known in China, whether formally clad in her trim People's Liberation Army olive uniform with plenty of blingy braid attached, or in one of her many elaborate ball gowns belting out a song or three.

But with Xi's political elevation, so too Peng Liyuan's profile has been lifted. She has all the credentials -- she is photogenic, dresses extremely well, and has a record of championing good causes (she was an ambassador for tobacco control in 2009 and in 2012 was appointed as the ambassador for the fight against tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS for the WHO, an initiative aided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation). When she recently stepped of the plane with Xi on an overseas trip, the photographers ate up her stylish black peabody coat, her spot-on high-bouffant hairdo, and a handbag of sumptuous leather that did not have any obvious branding (very important in these days of corruption crackdown and Chinese politicians being snapped with expensive Swiss watches and luxury European designer accessories that should be beyond the reach of fairly low-paid public officials).

All of this of course is no accident. Part of the Xi "China Dream Team" is the promotion of a first lady, something (if the Chinese blogosphere is to be believed) many Chinese have been waiting for after years of being fascinated with foreign first ladies from Michelle Obama to Carla Bruni to Cherie Blair. Going back of course, there's still a fascination among some with Jackie O., while, back in 1972, Pat Nixon intrigued the Chinese by wearing a rather scandalous red coat (her advisers told her the Chinese associated red with prostitutes) and accompanying her husband on tours of communes and schools. Obviously Peng Liyuan knows how to draw attention too, arriving with her husband in Tanzania on his recent swing through Africa in a well-tailored peach dress suit and with another luxurious leather, but again unbranded, handbag.

Still, as much as China watchers have argued that Peng Liyuan is the start of a new trend of prominent first ladies in China, the fact is that the tradition of prominent and controversial first ladies in Chinese politics is long and storied, dating all the way back to the birth of the Chinese Republic in 1911. And speculation about who is and who isn't a senior leader's consort has always been rife, at least unofficially. Indeed China's imperial system had a rigid and well defined ranking system of empress, consorts and concubines. There's some long history here: The Rites of Zhou, one of three ancient ritual texts listed among the classics of Confucianism and published sometime in the second century, stated that an emperor was entitled one empress, three madames, nine imperial concubines, 27 shifus (female masters), and 81 imperial wives.

Admittedly, since the 1980s, Chinese first ladies have been largely seen but not heard. Deng Xiaoping's wife, Zhuo Lin, often travelled with the paramount leader but was invariably well in the background; Jiang Zemin's wife, Wang Yeping, was seen even less, largely due to her frail health; Hu Jintao's wife, Liu Yongqing, was rarely photographed and said next to nothing publicly. Of course China loves gossip as much as anywhere, though the PRC is not getting its own TMZ anytime soon. Rumours of Jiang's close relationship with a well-known and popular singer indicated that Chinese leaders could have a taste for showgirls as much as any Kennedy.

It's not that senior leaders didn't have smart wives -- the wife of Mao's number two Zhou En-lai, Deng Yingchao, was a political force in her own right and as urbane and sophisticated as her husband. She shared her husband's travails -- hiding out in the Astor Hotel in Shanghai during the 1927 White Terror -- and later chaired the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a rubber-stamp unelected parliament that ratifies Communist Party policy, from 1983 to 1988. But the guiding trend after the Maoist years was for the wives to stay in the background. Hua Guofeng, Mao's designated successor, was married to Han Zhijun, who was less prominent but was known as the mother of four children and an avid gardener apparently. The wife of Zhao Ziyang, the reformist and popular general secretary of the Communist Party who was ousted in 1989 for supporting the students at Tiananmen Square, loyally accompanied him into internal exile until his death. She was apparently an excellent chess player, passing much of the time checkmating her husband, according to Zhao's leaked secret journals, which were eventually published in 2009 after his death.

Before Mao, of course, there was Chiang Kai-shek and Soong Mei-ling, Madame Chiang, one of the 20th-century's greatest first ladies, American-educated and from a wealthy and privileged family. She appeared on the cover of Time magazine no less than three times (Jackie Kennedy made the cover 17 times, but no other foreign first lady has done as well and few women either, with the notable exceptions of Princess Diana and the Virgin Mary). Madame Chiang clearly had the ability to captivate -- both Roosevelt and Churchill fell for her charms at the wartime Cairo Conference of 1943 where, according to the historian and Chiang biographer Jonathan Fenby, she vamped them both across the table. She was the very public face of China during the Sino-Japanese War, interpreted for her husband in meetings with foreign correspondents, and was undoubtedly one of the world's most stylish and fashionable women. Even after exile in Taiwan, followed by a life in obscurity in New York until she was 106, Madame Chiang was tabloid fodder, a highly public face of her husband's, and then step-son's, administrations, achieving almost regal status and, like all queens, having about as many detractors as admirers.

Soong Ching-ling (Madame Chiang's older sister) remains a highly visible figure in China as the wife of Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese revolutionary, first president and founding father of the Republic of China. That marriage was controversial to start with -- she basically, and scandalously, ran away from her family home to be with the much older Sun in Japan where he was plotting the Chinese republican revolution. Sun passed away in 1925, but Madame Sun kept a high profile is still revered today for having broken with her family's Nationalist allegiances and supporting the Communists, causing a rift between herself and her sister.

So with a prominent and stylish first lady by his side, is Xi about to inaugurate Beijing's version of Camelot? Probably not. Princes and showgirls don't always end well in China -- consider the best-known first lady to date: Jiang Qing, Madame Mao. An ex-starlet in the Shanghai film studios, Jiang and her relationship with Mao raised some eyebrows back in the Yan'an cave days, when the stalwarts of the early Communist Party were esconsed in opposition. (They were, by and large, male and somewhat prudish and rather frowned on Mao's liaison with a woman from the glitzy entertainment world of Shanghai, regularly denouncing her as decadent and bourgeois.) Her later incarnation in the Cultural Revolution and with the ultra-leftist Gang of Four who were eventually purged and charged with treasonous crimes was enough to put the leaders that inherited Mao's throne off prominent first ladies for a good long time.

Camelot or no, the Western media is going to continue to watch Peng Liyuan closely -- and her sartorial choices in particular. In 1900, the Pittsburgh Press noted the arrival of Li Hongzhang in America, the best-known Chinese statesman internationally in the last years of the Qing Dynasty and leader of China's Self-Strengthening Movement. The Press reported that Mrs Li "...is one of the most envied of Chinese women ... accounted a leader of fashions...with an abundant quantity of glossy black which she takes great pleasure in dressing..." Mrs. Xi can expect similar treatment. Back home, Peng and her accessories are already becoming something of an obsession for the Netizens of China -- the phrase "Peng Liyuan hand bag" had been searched on the popular portal Taobao more than 8 million times by last Monday night, but the top results were deleted by a nervous Net Nanny -- indeed, any Google search for "Peng Liyuan" is blocked as of this writing.

One thing Peng should not expect: a shoutout from her husband. China's political leaders rarely, if ever, engage in the pro-forma Western clichés of publicly thanking their spouses or family (or God) for their success. In the Beijing lexicon, the party stands in for mother, lover, and omnipotent power. "The Chinese people" sometimes get a nod of thanks, but mentioning home life would be unthinkable for a Chinese politician. And Mrs. Xi shouldn't expect to be allowed to say much, either, despite her celebrity: The days when Madames Sun and Chiang would sit next to their husbands and engage the foreign press corps in banter are not about to restart, not least because Chinese leaders don't really give interviews to the foreign press these days.

But Mrs. Xi might turn out to be different: She is confident and media-savvy, as witnessed by her close proximity to her husband at photo-ops and clearly thought-out and well-prepared outfits. She has yet to speak publicly -- perhaps she never will -- but her prominent visual image in and of itself indicates that Peng will be more like Madames Sun and Chiang than her immediate predecessors. This may well be the first Chinese administration since 1949 that successfully harnesses and exploits the soft power potential of a first lady.

Welcome on stage, Mrs. Xi.



Why Pro Wrestling Is Perfect for the Modern Middle East

It’s safer than sex.

DOHA, Qatar — Avoiding a people's elbow or tombstone piledriver in a flowing white thobe and leather sandals is about as difficult as it sounds, so Qataris leave that to the spandex-clad professionals. It's a pleasant February night in Doha -- the weather merciful enough to allow aggression -- and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE Raw) actors John Cena, Ryback, and CM Punk are pummeling each other before a crowd of a few thousand in an outdoor arena.

The throng features a mixture of South Asians, Westerners, and Arabs, many local. Qatari women, some with all but their eyes covered in black fabric, join husbands sporting Rolex watches and Muslim prayer beads to cheer on the hulking actor-athletes. The crowd knows all the charlatans' catchphrases, such as Ryback's chant: "Feed. Me. More."

Qatar is a conservative, Wahhabi-leaning country where alcohol consumption is illegal for citizens and Internet filters block pornography. Violent media content, however, is widely consumed and seemingly uncontested -- a trend that permeates the broader Arab world. While sexual media is censored -- the WWE show in Doha featured none of the dancing women seen at other venues -- images of combat are ubiquitous.

Some pan-Arab networks, like those in the Dubai-based MBC conglomerate, routinely broadcast reruns of professional wrestling matches, and slasher films like Saw and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 occasionally air during prime time across the Arab world. Unlike in the United States, expletives are typically uncensored. An oft-run commercial in Arab countries for the 2013 Oscars, for instance, featured an actor dropping the f-bomb in an acceptance speech.

Big-budget action movies from Hollywood are usually offered at cinemas across the Middle East, albeit with kissing and sex scenes deleted. As of this writing, Texas Chainsaw 3D and Bullet to the Head -- both rated R in the United States -- are airing in Doha, and it's not uncommon to see young children filing toward their glowing salons.

Likewise, Bruce Willis's Die Hard empire has been highly lucrative in the Arab world. In February, A Good Day to Die Hard opened in Doha, Cairo, Jerusalem, Dubai, Beirut, Abu Dhabi, Amman, and Manama.

The latest James Bond flick, Skyfall, aired across the Arab world, featuring a series of gruesome stabbings and shootings, but none of the signature 007 trysts, which were cut out in large chunks. At one point in the film, Bond is preparing to make nice with a woman at a hotel when, all of a sudden, he appears on a yacht headed to shore. Likewise, references to homosexuality in Western entertainment are almost always withheld from Arab audiences.

Small Arab countries like Qatar don't necessarily censor major international blockbusters for intimacy directly; such films can be censored when Arabic subtitles are added prior to distribution across the Arab world. Similarly, before some Western television programs and movies are beamed out of Dubai, they are scrubbed of sexual content for distribution across the Greater Middle East. It's not entirely clear, though, whether Arab governments demand specific changes or production firms self-censor to get their films distributed quickly across the Middle East.

Then there's the world of digital entertainment. Violent video games like Call of Duty are hugely popular in Arab countries, as are combat games produced in nearby Jordan and Iran. The Middle East is the world's fastest-growing theater for digital video games, a trend likely to continue, given the region's low median age and surging rates of mobile-phone ownership, according to Reuters. Qatar has more cell phones per person -- upwards of three -- than any country on Earth.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Arab world's love of action bleeds over into its news media. Leading Arabic media organizations like Al Jazeera typically run more-graphic images than their U.S. counterparts, a tendency that contributes to the perception in the United States that the network lacks restraint.

To some extent, the difference may be explained by the region's more intimate experience with war. Al Jazeera's audience has simply grown to expect a franker presentation of suffering -- a trend that goes for the viewership of other major Arabic networks like Al Arabiya, owned by members of the Saudi royal family.

"[P]eople in the Arab world see themselves suffering as a consequence of these ongoing wars and conflicts, and therefore feel that such acts should be reported through all types of media," Shahira Fahmy, a journalism professor at the University of Arizona, explained in an email. "The Arab audience identifies with what goes on in the region in general."

Some Arabic news outlets in the region are outright militant, like Hezbollah's Al-Manar and Hamas's al-Aqsa network, which advocate armed resistance against foes and have in the past featured combat-training videos. Most mainstream Arabic news outlets, though, assume formats that resemble CNN or BSkyB, but worry less about shocking audiences with blunt images.

Violent media in Arab countries, as anywhere, are big business. In February, in addition to the violent WWE charades, World Cup champion Spain played Uruguay in Doha, and Victoria Azarenka beat Serena Williams to win the Qatar Open. Ticket prices for these less violent events, however, highlight residents' preference for blood sport. Modest seats for Williams's championship match and the Spain-Uruguay friendly cost U.S. $18 and $41, respectively, while the cheapest WWE Raw seat drew $96. A ringside seat for two nights of WWE Raw cost a whopping $824, currently more than tickets to any "sports" event in the country.

The Qatari government's Tourism Authority was the primary sponsor of the WWE event, part of the country's strategy to promote economic growth through sports and entertainment. That strategy, in part, hinges on attracting viewers from more abstemious parts of the Persian Gulf.

One such viewer, a 25-year-old Saudi named Emad Allari, told me he flew in from Riyadh, where WWE shows, like movie theaters, are banned. "I'm a big fan," he said. "Watching WWE is the reason why I love to do bodybuilding now." Last year, he flew to Abu Dhabi for a three-day WWE show there.

There are some exceptions to the pro-violence, anti-skin partiality in Arab media markets.

Turkish social dramas, dubbed into Arabic, are wildly popular across the region, replacing some of the Western adrenaline and explosives during Arab prime time. Arab music video channels feature gyrating sirens with plenty of curves and V-lines, and flaunty magazines like Vogue are popular across the Middle East. The pageantry of Bollywood love stories is devoured by Arab consumers. Racy comedy can occasionally be found in the region too; edgy comedian Chris Tucker performed at the Doha Sheraton in early March, and some Qatari women covered in black abayas heard jokes on topics like marijuana and sexual technique.

Sexuality is not so different in Arab countries than in other parts of the world. I once asked a deliveryman in Egypt, who hauled anything to Cairenes' doorsteps that would fit on a moped, what he delivered to people's houses most frequently. "Condoms and Viagra," he said. "Mostly ordered by women."

At the time, Viagra was available in Egypt without a prescription, and this driver was moving a lot of it. The little blue stimulant was delivered so frequently, though, because many Egyptians are not so comfortable discussing sexuality in a public setting.

When some of these same consumers desire a violent video game or horror film to spice up a weekend, no need for delivery; they just head to the souk.

Courtesy WWE, Inc.