- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is Asia Editor. A Mandarin speaker, he lived in China for seven years before moving to Washington DC. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, BBC, NPR, Al-Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye is currently on a four-day, feel-good trip to China — full of pledges about greater cooperation on issues ranging from North Korea to bilateral trade — but one aspect of her visit has been unusual: During a meeting with Park on Friday, Chinese President Xi Jinping brought along his wife, Peng Liyuan. A photo of the sit-down shows Xi sitting in the center, looking to the left at Park, while Peng sits to his right, with what appears to be a notepad on her lap. A write-up of the exchange in the Chinese and English versions of Xinhua, China’s official news agency, mentions that "Xi’s wife Peng Liyuan and State Councilor Yang Jiechi also attended the meeting." (Yang isn’t in the photo.)
It seems bizarre to have a head of state’s spouse participate in an official meeting. A Chinese military singer who until her husband’s ascendance to national prominence a few years ago was better known than he was, Peng remains extremely popular in China. Having her around adds to Xi’s appeal. (She is China’s first charismatic first lady since Madame Mao — but that ended poorly.) Peng also traveled to California for Xi’s summit with Barack Obama earlier this month (Michelle Obama didn’t attend, in what many perceived as a snub), but she does not appear to have participated in similar meetings between Obama and Xi.
Peng has been used to help China improve its international image; a March article in the nationalistic newspaper The Global Times about Peng visiting an orphanage in Moscow carried the headline "First Lady Hailed as Big Push to Soft Power." But this week’s visit with with Park makeS one wonder what role, if any, Peng is playing in Chinese policymaking.