China's first lady makes a splash in tense Hong Kong visit

PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG - Xi Jinping's every word is being closely watched during his first visit to politically divided Hong Kong as China's leader, but his wife is stealing some of the spotlight in a soft power push by Beijing.

First lady Peng Liyuan has made headlines for her dress sense and charm as she meets members of the public, while Xi is sticking to more formal visits, including a massive military parade and a meeting with police trainees.

The couple arrived in the bustling financial hub Thursday to mark 20 years since the city was handed back to China by Britain, at a time when tensions are high over Beijing's encroaching influence on the semi-autonomous city.

Peng's curated image shows Beijing's desire to boost its soft power on the global stage, with state media lauding her "public diplomacy" as spreading "kindness and goodwill".

The wives of Chinese presidents have traditionally been far less prominent publicly than their counterparts overseas, particularly US first ladies.

Xi is not scheduled to meet regular citizens during the three-day trip to Hong Kong, a task that has been taken on by his celebrated soprano singer spouse who visited a kindergarten and elderly home in the first two days.

She has received a warm welcome on social media, even on traditionally sceptical forums.

"Although I'm not a fan of Xi, his wife is definitely more than presentable," one user commented on the website of the usually anti-China Apple Daily website.

Others called her "dignified and noble" and "a real beauty." Peng emerged from the plane Thursday holding hands with Xi, wearing a high-collar white striped jacket paired with a beige skirt and an upswept hairstyle.

Later that day she visited kindergarten students and handed out gifts as they played.

On Friday, as Xi oversaw a massive military parade in rural Hong Kong, Peng visited an elderly home wearing a dark-coloured belted dress adorned with a flower brooch as residents praised her for being "smart" and "pretty".

But some observers criticised the visits as exploiting more vulnerable members of society to stage a show.

"Little children don't understand what's happening, only that a stranger auntie is giving them presents," one social media user commented on Facebook.

"Brainwashing starts from kindergarten. How scary," another said.

Peng was a well known folk singer and rose to superstardom performing at gala shows belting out patriotic lyrics.

She has rarely performed since Xi rose to the presidency, instead accompanying him on trips abroad and speaking at events on health and philanthropy within China.

She performed in Hong Kong at the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the 1997 handover, wearing a lavish pink and red gown.

Xi Jinping in Hong Kong 20th anniversary of handover

  • Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan arrive at the airport in Hong Kong, China, ahead of celebrations marking the city's handover from British to Chinese rule, June 29, 2017.
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks after his arrival at the airport in Hong Kong, China, ahead of celebrations marking the city's handover from British to Chinese rule, June 29, 2017.
  • China's President Xi Jinping shakes hands with outgoing Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying during a meeting in a hotel in Hong Kong, China, June 29, 2017.
  • China's President Xi Jinping speaks with outgoing Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying during a meeting in a hotel in Hong Kong, China, June 29, 2017
  • Police escort Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of 20th anniversary of the handover from Britain to China, in Hong Kong, China June 29, 2017.
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping is welcomed by Chief Executive-elect Carrie Lam upon Xi's arrival in Hong Kong, China June 29, 2017.
  • Chinese president Xi Jinping, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and Chief Executive-elect Carrie Lam clap after watching two Chinese opera performers during a visit to Hong Kong's West Kowloon district, in Hong Kong June 29, 2017.
  • People follow the performance as pro-China supporters gather as a part of celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the handover from British to Chinese rule, in Hong Kong, China June 29, 2017.
  • A policeman keeps watch as pro-China supporters gather along a road during a visit by China's President Xi Jinping in Hong Kong on June 29, 2017.
  • People hold candles as they attend a vigil for terminally-ill Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo in Hong Kong on June 29, 2017. This coincides with President Xi Jinping's arrival in Hong Kong to mark 20 years since its return to China by Britain, with activists under arrest as authorities sought to avoid embarrassment during anniversary celebrations
  • An activist holds a poster of terminally-ill Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo on the sidelines of a vigil for him in Hong Kong on June 29, 2017.
  • Soldiers march at a People's Liberation Army (PLA) base in Hong Kong as part of events marking the 20th anniversary of the city's handover from British to Chinese rule, June 30, 2017.
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects troops at the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Hong Kong Garrison as part of events marking the 20th anniversary of the city's handover from British to Chinese rule, in Hong Kong, China June 30, 2017.
  • China's President Xi Jinping inspects People's Liberation Army soldiers at a barracks in Hong Kong on June 30, 2017.
  • Soldiers shout as they prepare for the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jinping (unseen) at the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Hong Kong Garrison as part of events marking the 20th anniversary of the city's handover from British to Chinese rule, in Hong Kong, China June 30, 2017.
  • Hong Kong's People's Liberation Army soldiers prepare to parade prior to the arrival of Chinaese President Xi Jinping in Hong Kong on June 30, 2017.
  • Members of Chinese People's Liberation Army based at the Hong Kong garrison prepare to parade prior to the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Hong Kong on June 30, 2017.
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