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Premier's wife to bring a touch of soft power

2014-06-17 09:16 China Daily Web Editor: Wang Fan
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (C) and his wife Cheng Hong (R) arrive in London, Britain, June 16, 2014. Li arrived here Monday for an official visit to Britain. (Xinhua/Pang Xinglei)

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (C) and his wife Cheng Hong (R) arrive in London, Britain, June 16, 2014. Li arrived here Monday for an official visit to Britain. (Xinhua/Pang Xinglei)

When Premier Li Keqiang visits the United Kingdom and Greece this week, one of the most prominent members of his entourage will be his wife, Cheng Hong.  [Special coverage]

Her presence on the trip suggests China is already reaping handsome rewards from her early forays — and those of Peng Liyuan, wife of President Xi Jinping — into soft diplomacy.

"Cheng's presence may help both to attract more media coverage and let the British people know more about change in China," said Alex Kirby, a former veteran BBC journalist, who has continued to be an avid China watcher since he retired.

Li visited Europe twice last year without Cheng, but she was by his side when he visited Angola, Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria last month.

China observers said that Cheng, an English professor and researcher of American nature writing with the Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing, will likely meet young people and may even discuss Greek classics.

The clamor in the UK and Greece to see Cheng put her best foot forward follows the recent visit of Xi and Peng, a well-known soprano in China, to Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands.

While coverage of China in the European media has been dominated by territorial spats with some of its neighbors and disputes with the US over computer hacking, Li is likely to stress China's pursuit of peace and prosperity backed by solid research and education.

His audiences are likely to include university students, and his wife is expected to use the academic setting to engage with locals.

Pierre Picquart, a China observer and professor at the University of Paris VIII, said Cheng's presence on the trip gives China an opportunity to strengthen its soft power and enhance cultural exchanges, academic relations and humanitarian efforts.

"Xi and Peng are regarded as an important political couple in Europe," Picquart said. "It has been increasingly obvious that Chinese leaders are paying greater attention than before to the influence of soft diplomatic arrangements during official visits."

Shada Islam, policy director of the think tank Friends of Europe in Brussels, said in the West, leaders' spouses play an important role in public diplomacy by, for example, showcasing clothes made by their countries' couturiers.

"I think Xi's wife Peng Liyuan is an important messenger of China's soft power," Islam said. "Diplomatically, the presence of Li and his wife will also be good for China's image.'

Michal Krol, a research associate at the European Center of International Political Economy in Brussels, said efforts by Chinese leaders to reach out to foreign people in non-political settings will help determine how the country is perceived overseas.

Cooperation and understanding between the EU and China depends on the ability to communicate in a way that transcends empathy, he said.

Liu Hongsong, a Chinese visiting scholar at the London School of Economics, said soft diplomacy can help clear up public misconceptions about the China-EU relationship.

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