First Girlfriend? First Lady? Tough call for Chinese media

Truth be told, the visit of French President Francois Hollande to Beijing last week is not very big news here: even lower-ranking American officials can get more coverage when they come to China.

Ditto an earlier Beijing visit by Iceland Prime Minister Johanna Siguroardottir.

C’est la vie.

But the duo created a lot of buzz and fuss in China all right. For look who the two brought.

Mr Hollande was accompanied by his partner Valerie Trierweiler; Ms Siguroardottir brought along her wife Jonina Leosdottir - gay marriage is recognised in Iceland.

Many a smart aleck Chinese netizen asks: “So is Ms Trierweiler the “First Girlfriend”? And Ms Leosdottir “First Lady”?”

The visits of the two European leaders and their other halves have set tongues wagging in China because the very presence of Ms Trierweiler and Ms Leosdottir has challenged Chinese norms about marital relations.

China recognises only marriages between man and woman and the mention of cohabitation is rare in the Chinese media.

Indeed, in Chinese, there’s no term, it seems, to describe “partner”, increasingly used by some to refer to their other halves in a committed relationship outside marriage. Partners can be of the same or different sex.

Mr Hollande and Ms Trierweiler have been together for five years but have no plans to marry.

Instead, Chinese-language media have referred to Ms Trierweiler as Mr Hollande’s “girlfriend” (nu peng you).

Even the English-language media in China referred to her this way. “China’s First Lady Meets Girlfriend of French President”, so goes a headline on the English website of China National Radio.

But French news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) describes Ms Trierweiler as Mr Hollande’s partner - more than just “girlfriend”.

AFP cheekily grouped Ms Trierweiler and China’s First Lady Peng Liyuan together - “The French president is expected to have three meetings with Mr Xi, including a state banquet yesterday and a more intimate lunch today along with their respective partners, Ms Valerie Trierweiler and Ms Peng Liyuan,” it said in an article on April 25.

In France, marriage seems passe. Instead, more couples now live together and have children out of wedlock. But in China, it is still taboo to do so, though many rich men keep mistresses.

If French cohabiting norms are already alien to the Chinese, Ms Siguroardottir and her wife caused more confusion.

Ms Trierweiler is Mr Hollande’s “girlfriend” in the Chinese media. That’s better than nothing - which seems to be what Ms Leosdottir is to some, going by how state broadcaster CCTV Chinese omitted mention of her.

In China, homosexuality was deemed a mental illness until 2001 and a crime until 1997.

Hong Kong’s Phoenix satellite TV had shown Ms Sigurdardottir thanking Chinese Premier Li Keqiang for his hospitality towards her and her wife. CCTV didn’t.

To be fair, China is probably not the only country unsure of how to handle the “partners” of visiting leaders.

And some in China, like the Beijing Foreign Studies University, stood out for their open-minded approach to the visit of the Iceland leader’s wife. The school addressed her as such when she paid it a visit.

Only when there’s less hush-hush over unusual other-halves can the Chinese show themselves to be citizens of a big country, a country with a big heart.