China's first lady shines on LatAm trip with Xi

PORT OF SPAIN (AFP) - President Xi Jinping made history as the first Chinese leader to visit Trinidad and Tobago, but it is his glamorous wife Peng Liyuan who has turned the trip into a media sensation.

Peng is stealing the spotlight as she joins Xi on the visit to the dual island country off the coast of Venezuela, the first stop on a tour that will also take the couple to Costa Rica, Mexico and the United States.

Neither rain, the throngs jostling to see the visitors, nor the constant burst of camera flashes chronicling her public appearances flustered the impeccably dressed Chinese first lady, a former opera star fluent in English.

"She's a very beautiful person, very warm, and to chat with her in English was very wonderful," gushed Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar after meeting Peng.

Ms Peng understands the celebrity life: before Mr Xi's rise to power she was a well-known soprano who toured the world promoting Chinese opera and music. For 24 years she also starred in an annual Lunar New Year gala broadcast on Chinese state television.

Pictures of Peng are prominent in the official handouts distributed ahead of Mr Xi's visit. In one photo, Ms Peng appears in her army uniform singing to a crowd of People's Liberation Army soldiers.

"She began as an ordinary soldier, but with her vocal talent later performed during frontline tours to boost morale during the Sino-Vietnamese border conflicts" of the 1980s, according to her official biography. From that reportedly humble beginning, she rose through the ranks to become an army general.

Ms Peng has been compared to former French president Nicolas Sarkozy's wife, pop singer Carla Bruni, but the best regional comparison is Angelica Rivera, the ex-soap star queen wife of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.

Both women were better known than their husbands before they rose to power, and both brought glamour to first lady positions that had long been relegated to background roles.

The wives of China's leaders kept low profiles since the 1970s downfall of Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong's last wife and member of the Gang of Four, blamed for many of the Cultural Revolution excesses. Ms Liu Yongqing, the wife of Mr Xi's predecessor Hu Jintao, often accompanied the Chinese president on overseas trips but did non cultivate a public persona.

Ms Peng, 50, met Mr Xi through a mutual friend and married her in 1987, according to the official biography. Their only daughter, Xi Mingze, was born in 1992 and is reportedly a student at Harvard University.

China has been focusing on Latin America in recent years as the world's second biggest economy taps into the region's mineral and oil wealth to fuel growth.

China has enormous energy demands, and Trinidad and Tobago is rich in oil and natural gas, and on Saturday the Asian giant and the tiny Caribbean nation, with a population of 1.3 million, signed a agreements on economic cooperation and cultural exchanges.

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