BEIJING - A photo of China's new first lady Peng Liyuan in younger days, singing to martial-law troops following the 1989 bloody military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, flickered across Chinese cyberspace this week.
It was swiftly scrubbed from China's Internet before it could generate discussion online. But the image - seen and shared by outside observers - revived a memory the leadership prefers to suppress and shows one of the challenges in presenting Peng on the world stage as the softer side of China.
The leadership wants Peng to show the human side of the new No. 1 leader, Xi Jinping, while not exposing too many perks of the elite. And it must balance popular support for the first couple with wariness of personality cults that could skew the consensus rule among the Chinese Communist Party's top leaders.
The image of Peng in a green military uniform, her windswept hair tied back in a ponytail as she sings to helmeted and rifle-bearing troops seated in rows on Beijing's Tiananmen Square, contrasts with her appearances this week in trendy suits and coiffed hair while touring Russia and Africa with Xi.
"I think that we have a lot of people hoping that because Xi Jinping walks around without a tie on and his wife is a singer who travels with him on trips that maybe we're dealing with a new kind of leader, but I think these images remind people that this is the same party," said Kelley Currie, a China human-rights expert for the pro-democracy Project 2049 Institute in Arlington, Virginia. "It's using some … new techniques, for the same purposes: to preserve its own power."
Peng, 50, a major general in the People's Liberation Army, kept a low profile in recent years as her husband prepared to take over as Communist Party chief. Her re-emergence has been accompanied by a blitz in domestic, state-run media hailing her beauty and charm, in a bid to harness the singer's popularity to build support for Xi at home and abroad.