Joel Wing-Lun is a Research Associate in the Lowy Institute's East Asia Program.
As I noted on this blog last month, China's first lady Peng Liyuan caused an online sensation when, breaking with her invisible predecessors, she accompanied President Xi Jinping on official visits to Russia and Africa. The popular singer's every outfit was appraised by millions of Chinese netizens; an appearance in a coat and scarf by a local label generated so much traffic that its website crashed.
This week another first lady is lighting up Weibo, with the announcement that Icelandic Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir (pictured) and her wife, Jonina Leosdottir, will pay an official visit to China on 15-18 April. Prime Minister Sigurdardottir will meet with Xi and Premier Li Keqiang, as well as Li's predecessor Wen Jiabao, and will sign a free trade agreement six years in the making.
While China's recent forays into the Arctic – including one Chinese businessman's plan for a luxury hotel and golf course – have concerned Iceland and other Nordic states, Chinese netizens were more concerned with how top leaders and state media would treat the partner of the world's first openly gay head of government. By contrast, the recent visit of Aussie 'first bloke' Tim Mathieson caused barely a ripple.
Homosexuality was decriminalised in China 1997 and has not been classified as a mental disorder since 2001, but the topic is largely avoided in mainstream media and being openly gay is still considered taboo (for many gays in China, freedom to marry is less a concern than freedom not to marry). A brief statement by the official Xinhua news agency noted that Prime Minister Sigurdardottir was invited by Premier Li, but made no mention of Ms Leosdottir.
Netizens responded to news of the visit with bemusement or admiration. Some initially thought headlines announcing the visit contained a typo. Others praised the couple and expressed hope that gays would one day be treated equally in China. But many netizens seemed to take particular delight in the dilemma facing government officials as they speculated whether Ms Leosdottir would be shown on the nightly national newscast. As one Weibo user put it, 'let the games begin'.
A decade ago, the visit of the Icelandic first couple would not have presented the same challenge. But the government now feels more pressure to extend equal courtesies to a gay spouse, not only because of shifting social mores, but because the internet and the increasing availability of information have made the government more sensitive and responsive to public opinion.
China's leaders want to project a certain image on the world stage – a photo of Xi Jinping carrying his wife's handbag was recently removed from Weibo. The question they face is whether embracing or sidestepping Ms Leosdottir will appear more statesman-like, knowing full well that the eyes of many netizens are upon them. While Prime Minister Sigurdardottir's visit marks a milestone in China-Iceland relations, Ms Leosdottir's appearance may also have a lasting impact.
Photo by Flickr user Socialdemokrater.