* Peng Liyuan to join husband Xi Jinping on U.S. trip
* Accomplished Peng acts as cultural ambassador on state
* Glamorous former singing star with PLA, Peng popular at
By Christian Shepherd
BEIJING, March 31 Glamorous, popular and
passionate about fighting AIDS, Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan
is Beijing's diplomatic not-so-secret weapon spreading Chinese
soft power around the world.
A former singing star in the People's Liberation Army,
"Mother Peng", as she is affectionately known in China, will be
at President Xi Jinping's side as he meets U.S. President Donald
Trump in Florida next week.
Details of her programme have been largely kept under wraps,
but she and Xi will dine with Trump and his wife Melania next
With hot-button issues including North Korea and trade in
focus and Trump promising a "very difficult" meeting, China will
be hoping the accomplished Peng can help smooth relations
between the leaders of the world's two biggest economies.
"If the two first ladies meet, and the atmosphere is good,
then at the very least it will raise the whole atmosphere of the
leaders meeting," said Shi Yinhong, who heads the Centre for
American Studies at Beijing's Renmin University and has advised
the government on diplomacy.
China's most powerful first lady since Mao Zedong's wife
Jiang Qing, Peng has become a regular feature of China's global
outreach since her husband took the reins of state in 2013.
With a smile on her face, dressed in a simple black peacoat
and carrying an elegant unbranded bag, Peng stepped into the
international limelight in Russia in March 2013 on Xi's first
foreign trip as president, becoming an instant internet
sensation and style trendsetter back home.
Since then, she has named pandas with then-U.S. first lady
Michelle Obama, made friends with orphans in Zimbabwe and sat
with Costa Rican children on her lap.
For the last decade, Peng has advocated for those living
with AIDS and tuberculosis, and was recognised with a UN award
in January for her role in combating the stigma attached to
those with HIV and AIDS.
"Since 2006, I have been to high risk places, villages,
hospitals, patients' homes, community centres, schools and
universities," Peng said, speaking in slightly halting English,
a language she has worked hard to master since her husband took
power. "I have seen pain and fear in children's eyes."
Peng's career as a darling of China's military choir made
her a household name in China long before her husband, with
appearances on the state-broadcaster's New Year Gala and other
popular TV shows propelling her to stardom in the 1980s and
Peng retains the rank of Major General in the People's
Liberation Army and is dean of the army's Arts Academy.
In the eyes of many Chinese, Peng embodies a
broadly-appealing patriotism blended with China's classical
virtues, thanks to her army career and her pedigree musical
Peng has accompanied Xi on a number of diplomatic events
since last summer, including a tour of Poland, Serbia and
Former model Melania Trump, by contrast, has been mostly
absent since her husband took office on Jan. 20, spending much
of her time in New York, caring for the couple's 11-year-old
On past state visits, Peng has played the role of China's
cultural ambassador, teaching foreigners the art of
ink-and-brush calligraphy or the finicky wrapping of boiled
While her public life has been largely free of scandal, she
drew criticism from rights activists after images appearing to
show her serenading army troops shortly after the 1989
pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square surfaced briefly
online in 2013 before being scrubbed from the internet in China.
There was also a moment of drama in 2014 when Russian
President Vladimir Putin draped a coat around Peng's shoulders
at an outdoor event on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific summit,
images also fast removed from the Chinese internet, apparently
due to fears it showed the two flirting.
At the same summit, a video of Peng appearing to shoot Xi a
meaningful glance reminding him to join other leaders in waving
to the crowd sparked speculation about her ability to influence
her husband, especially when it comes to his public appearance.
Melania Trump, when asked on CBS television network's 60
Minutes in November 2016 if her husband took her advice,
replied: "Sometimes he listens, sometimes he doesn't. I think he
hears me. But he will do what he wants to do in the end."
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Beijing Newsroom;
Editing by Lincoln Feast)