China's Michelle Obama? First Lady Peng Liyuan inspires fashion frenzy

As President Xi Jinping and his wife tour Africa, China’s fashion world is scrutinizing Peng Liyuan's wardrobe - and Chinese stock markets are keeping a close eye, too.

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
China's first lady Peng Liyuan walks at the Union buildings during a working visit to South Africa, in Pretoria Tuesday.

If you want to make a killing on the stock market, here’s an unusual tip: Identify the fashion house behind the clothes that Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan is wearing at her next public appearance and buy shares in that company, fast.

Ms. Peng, currently touring Africa with her husband, the new Chinese President Xi Jinping, is proving a smash hit back home and inspiring fashionistas to replicate her look. 

So when a news story on Tuesday identified the pearl earrings that Peng was wearing as coming from the city of Zhuji, the stock price of all the pearl producers in Zhuji rose on the news. One company’s stock rose so far so fast that market regulators capped its price rise on Wednesday.

Peng has captured the Chinese imagination as a stylish and modern face for her country, most of whose first ladies have ranged recently from dowdy to invisible. And the state-controlled press is playing the story for all it is worth, with front page photos and breathless coverage.

“Peng Liyuan Opens the Door for Chinese Fashion and Confidence” read the enthusiastic headline of an editorial in Wednesday’s edition of Global Times, a tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party.

In a world where China is more often seen as a threatening potential enemy than as a friend, according to a number of recent international opinion polls, Peng is a more useful weapon for Beijing’s image-makers than an aircraft carrier.

She was already massively popular before her husband became president earlier this month; indeed, as a nationally famous singer of patriotic and military songs, she was better known than Mr. Xi until he was tapped five years as next in line for the top job. And then she dropped out of sight.

Recently she has quietly begun doing first lady-like things, such as becoming a World Health Organization ambassador in the fight against HIV-Aids. She is “widely viewed as a tremendous element of China’s soft power,” wrote leading foreign policy pundit Shen Dingli in an opinion piece for the “Global Times” earlier this week. “Now … it is time to present such soft power on the world stage.”

Peng has not opened her mouth in public yet, but has used her fashion sense to project China’s soft power. Everything she wears is Chinese made and designed, and sometimes clearly designed in the oriental style. That is a marked contrast with the sense of style that prevails among most wealthy Chinese women, which tends towards well known Western brands.

Such brands are bad news in China at the moment, too closely identified with corrupt officials and their wives at a time when Xi has promised a crackdown on corruption.

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