| Global Times | 2013-3-25 0:03:01
By Chen Tian
Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan visited a Moscow boarding school for orphans and children estranged from their parents on Saturday in a move analysts say delivers a "big push" to Beijing's soft power.
"I represent thousands of mothers in China to be here visiting you," Peng said, after watching dance and acrobatics performances by students.
Peng, a renowned folk singer and actress, passed on her wishes for the children to lead healthy, happy lives and contribute meaningfully to society.
Peng was accompanying husband Xi Jinping on his maiden tour abroad as Chinese president.
Wang Lijiu, an expert of Russian studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, told the Global Times that Peng's visit strengthens China's soft power, including its culture and image.
"China realizes that first-lady diplomacy is a vital component of public diplomacy," Wang said. "As a renowned singer, Peng can publicize Chinese culture and deliver a big push to the country's soft power."
Peng set Web users swooning after she and Xi touched down in Russia on Friday, triggering around 25,000 microblog posts and more than 1 million comments on Sina Weibo.
In stark contrast to Web users' usual skepticism reserved for government officials, the first lady has won near-unanimous praise for her glamor and poise.
"She represents the China image: beautiful, graceful and generous," one microblogger wrote.
"Her outfit was gorgeous," another mused. "She looked professional and solemn, yet feminine."
The first lady even sparked a fashion frenzy with her homegrown dark overcoat worn as she disembarked from the plane with her husband in Russia on Friday.
Searches on Chinese online retail giant taobao.com for "Peng Liyuan style" currently yield more 100 products, including coats, handbags and shoes, with prices ranging from 30 to 1,200 yuan ($4.80-$193.15).
Similar handbags made by the same brand as Peng's quickly sold out in Chengdu, Sichuan Province.
Zhang Zhi'an, an associate professor of the School of Communication and Design at Sun Yat-sen University, told the Global Times that Peng's popularity reflects the public's desire to learn more about their political leaders.
"Handpicked, top-down information will no longer satisfy Chinese people, who have been empowered by online social networks," Zhang said.
"People want to know more about their once-mysterious leaders and their personal lives," Zhang added.
According to Zhang, Peng's high profile as an entertainer will help the newly-elected leadership connect more closely with the public.
"Peng's Russia visit and the media's recent reportage of her relationship with Xi offer anecdotes that can soften the images of leaders," Zhang said. "Such positive information makes people want to trust the government."
Zhang said policies will ultimately shape the public's perception of the government, but added greater disclosure of politicians' personal lives could build more down-to-earth personas.
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