BEIJING – In the love-hate U.S.-China relationship, there has been no shortage of competition: cyberwars, currency wars, intellectual property wars and, most recently, the tug-of-war over a certain asylum-seeking leaker of secrets.
Then there is the rivalry over who has the best-dressed first lady, capped by China’s surprising anointment as the winner last week by Vanity Fair.
For the second consecutive year, Michelle Obama did not make the cut for the high-fashion magazine’s “International Best-Dressed” list. But China’s new first lady did. Peng Liyuan “sails onto the list,” as Vanity Fair put it in a photo gallery highlighting Peng’s eye for trendy-yet-stately attire.
The honor had some Chinese bloggers crowing. “She is the mother of the country,” wrote an unidentified Chinese blogger. “Finally, China has a first lady who gets people thumbs-up around the world.” On Friday, one Chinese poster took a nuanced view of Peng’s image campaign, saying: “You’re winning credit for China. But it’s more important to do substantive things for the poor in China.”
Some in the U.S. fashion orbit saw Obama’s omission as a misjudgment. An author at the New York-based Fashionista blog wrote that there were “more than a few snubs” on the list, but that “the biggest would probably have to be Michelle Obama . . . especially when you consider some of the men and women who made the list over her, like Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan.”
Peng’s high-visibility public trips abroad and appearances at home have broken a decades-long tendency for top Chinese leaders’ wives to remain hidden from public view.
Peng has played a role in the public-relations push mounted by her husband, President Xi Jinping, who is working to cultivate a man-of-the-people image. But she has also generated some controversy. A photo, heavily censored in China, appears to show her serenading troops in Tiananmen Square shortly after the 1989 crackdown in which large numbers of student protesters were killed.
Peng is actually the second first lady in Chinese history to make Vanity Fair’s best-dressed list. The first, 70 years ago, was Soong May-ling, the wife of Nationalist President Chiang Kai-shek, who later fled with her husband to Taiwan after his defeat at the hands of the Communist Party.
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