New face of China's soft power

Updated: 2013-03-29 07:11

By Harvey Dzodin (China Daily)

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Why are first ladies so important in the United States despite the fact that they are unpaid and have no official responsibilities? There are several reasons, but the most important reason is they are role models for other women in the United States.

Theodore Roosevelt called the White House the "bully pulpit", as he believed it was the perfect platform for promoting social causes and ideals and all the first ladies since "Lady Bird" Johnson in the 1960s have used the bully pulpit to advance social causes.

"Lady Bird" Johnson was an environmental pioneer. Pat Nixon promoted volunteerism. Betty Ford was an early proponent of women's rights. Rosalyn Carter an advocate for the rights of people with mental health problems. Nancy Reagan used her time to fight drug abuse. Barbara Bush promoted literacy in general, while Laura Bush focused her attention on childhood literacy. Hillary Clinton was a child advocate and author. Michelle Obama is currently leading a fight against childhood obesity, a problem of epidemic proportions in the US.

They were all effective to varying degrees inside the US, but few have made an impression internationally.

Once in a blue moon, though, first ladies can project the US' soft power beyond its borders. In this regard, Jacqueline Kennedy was head and shoulders above the rest. Although she wasn't an actress, model or singer, she was a fashion and cultural icon who charmed people wherever she went. She was half of the couple who for a thousand days gave the US what appeared at the time to be an idyllic period. Because of them, many people never felt prouder to be a citizen of the United States.

While in the White House, she gave a televised tour of her newly renovated historic home. More than a half-century later this black-and-white performance that featured a cameo by her husband is still a tour de force of soft power projection.

If you were looking to cast someone to carry on Jacqueline Kennedy's charm offensive, it would be hard to find anyone more suitable than Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping. If you were writing a novel and trying to craft the perfect blend of personal history, capabilities, poise and charm for a character, you'd come up with someone like Peng.

Born into a humble family in Shandong province, she joined the People's Liberation Army at the age of 18, gaining nationwide fame as a performer of patriotic and military songs. But she is not only praised for her voice and professional achievements, she has also gained plaudits for her charity efforts and volunteerism. She has, among other things, distinguished herself as a World Health Organization ambassador in the fight against AIDS, and was a comforting presence in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

I've had the great joy of attending one of the super-talented Peng's performances in the Golden Hall, the Musikverein, in Vienna and, like the rest of the audience there, was enchanted and mesmerized by her.

Try as it may, it's no secret that China, even with its unparalleled rich and venerable culture, has not done a good job when it comes to its attempts to exercise the soft power that befits a country of its stature. Let's face it, the United States is doing a much better job in this respect, it has dominated this field in virtually every aspect for the last hundred years and perfected the projection of soft power beyond its shores as both an art and a science.

The media attention given Peng as she accompanies her husband on his first foreign trip as president shows that not only can she serve as a role model for Chinese women, especially young Chinese women at home and abroad, she can also be an effective icon for projecting China's soft power overseas.

For decades at least, China has not had a tradition of first ladies like in the US. Now that China has mounted to a higher position on the world stage, it can project its first first lady!

And Peng Liyuan is the perfect person with whom to begin.

The author is a senior adviser to Tsinghua University and former director and vice-president of ABC Television in New York.

(China Daily 03/29/2013 page8)