Tea Leaf Nation

Putin Hits on China’s First Lady, Censors Go Wild

Russia’s Don Juan-in-chief  just got a little too friendly with Xi Jinping's wife.

Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images

The first unspoken rule of diplomacy might be "Don’t hit on the president’s wife," but Russia’s newly single president Vladimir Putin seems to have missed the memo.

Leaders of 21 Asia-Pacific nations including Russia have converged upon Beijing for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, slated to run through Nov. 11. At an APEC event held on the evening of Nov. 10 at the Water Cube, the resplendent aquatic stadium constructed for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Putin was seated next to Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan, who in turn sat next to her husband, Chinese President Xi Jinping.

That’s a seating arrangement Xi may now regret. 

While Xi was distracted talking to U.S. President Barack Obama, who was sitting on his right, Russia’s tiger-shooting, horseback-riding president made his move. After a brief exchange — you can almost imagine Peng making appropriately cliché small talk like "my, isn’t it chilly in here" — Putin abruptly stood up, grasped a tan coat in both hands, and wrapped it chivalrously around the first lady’s shoulders. She smiled gracefully, thanked him, and sat down — only to surreptitiously slip the coat from her shoulders moments later into the waiting arms of an attendant.

State broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) caught the whole encounter on video. Peng and Putin cut small figures from the camera’s distant perch across the vast Water Cube, but the CCTV commentator had no trouble making out their identities. She remarked upon Putin’s chivalrous gesture just moments later, saying, "Putin has just placed his coat around Peng Liyuan’s body." Major Chinese news outlets including web giant Sina and Phoenix Media quickly posted the video, which also began circulating on Chinese social media. The encounter even spawned a short-lived hashtag, "Putin Gives Peng Liyuan His Coat," on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging site.

But that was when the censors kicked in. Within hours of posting the video, Chinese news sites had already pulled it off their sites, and censors scrubbed it from social media sites. 

China hopes to project a squeaky-clean image while international attention centers on APEC’s host. But that’s not the only reason why the Putin-Peng Coatgate has China’s censors on high alert. China’s tightly controlled state media carefully protects the reputation of its top government leaders, and the names of China’s top leaders are frequently some of the most heavily censored terms on Chinese social media. In addition, the sweeping anti-corruption campaign Xi himself directs specifically targets infidelity as both a sign and a symptom of graft. And given China’s growing economic and military ties with Russia, even the hint of less than squeaky-clean behavior involving Russia’s president and China’s First Lady is certainly strictly verboten.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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