A diplomatic star is born in Chinese first lady

Glamorous new first lady Peng Liyuan has emerged as a Chinese diplomatic star, charming audiences and cutting a distinct profile from her all-but-invisible predecessors on her debut official trip abroad.

Peng was featured prominently in Sunday's Chinese media coverage of her husband President Xi Jinping in Russia on his first state visit since he assumed the presidency earlier this month.

A celebrated performer on state television, Peng watched song-and-dance routines at a performing arts school on Saturday, but did not join in as some media reports had suggested she might. The couple arrived in Tanzania later Sunday, and their trip also includes stops in South Africa and Congo.

An internationally popular first lady could help soften China's sometimes abrasive international image and mark a victory in its so-far unsuccessful struggle to win over global public opinion.

At the same time, she could boost the popularity of the country's new leadership at a time when citizens are feeling increasingly alienated and are fed up with the ruling class's corruption and regal airs.

In recent years, the wives of China's top officials have traditionally gone almost unseen at home and attracted little attention while accompanying their husbands on state visits.

That was in part a negative reaction to Mao Zedong's wife, Jiang Qing, who was widely despised and later imprisoned for her role as leader of the radical Gang of Four, which mercilessly persecuted political opponents during the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

Recently retired Premier Wen Jiabao's wife, Zhang Peili, became known for her role in the country's gem trade and was never seen in public with her husband. Meanwhile, Bo Xilai, one of China's most ambitious politicians, was brought down in spectacular style last year following his wife's involvement in the murder of a British businessman, setting off the country's nastiest political scandal in years.

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