25 Mar 2013

What a simple handbag may tell us about China’s confidence

What’s in a handbag? Well, your wallet and your lipstick and all that, but maybe the future of the world as well.

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Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, is throbbing with excitement about the bag Peng Liyuan (pictured above), the wife of the new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, is carrying on their trip to Russia and Africa.

So what? you might say, but you’d be wrong. That handbag (pictured below) matters, because it’s not a foreign brand but made by the Guangzhou-based designers Exception.

In other words, China has a glamorous and fashionable First Lady like Michelle Obama or Jackie Kennedy, who’s using her position to promote Chinese brands.

China doesn’t just manufacture high fashion in endless factories, it designs and markets it too, so watch out Gucci, Prada and the rest.

According to the Wall Street Journal, by Monday evening the phrase “Peng Liyuan handbag” had been searched more than eight million times, and a copycat handbag deleted from the search results.

There was dispute about whether her black trenchcoat was indeed by Exception, or a company called Useless (I am not making any of this up) owned by a co-founder of Exception who formed a new company.

Either way, it was Chinese and both companies are likely to see their share price rise.

The last famous Chinese First Lady was Jiang Qing, the third wife of Mao Tse Tung, a glamorous Shanghai filmstar who, as one of the “Gang of Four”, led the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

She was condemned to death for ordering the killing of hundreds of thousands of people, but ended up taking her own life. After all that drama, Chinese leaders were required to have inconspicuous, drably dressed and usually absent wives.

Peng Liyuan is famous in her own right as a singer with the People’s Liberation Army. She used to star in the most-watched TV programme in the world, the Chinese New Year variety show, but after her husband was groomed for the top in 2007, she dropped from view.

Her reappearance speaks volumes about the changes in China. First, it means that the Chinese Communist Party is not afraid of another Jiang Qing – times have changed.

While Raisa Gorbachev’s glamour signalled the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union, the Party clearly feels comfortable that Peng is an asset not a threat to their power. And, as the eurozone is faced with collapse and the US economy struggles to get back on its feet, she is a symbol of a new cool, successful and modern China.

Tomorrow her husband will meet with leaders of Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa countries to discuss forming an alternative to the IMF and the World Bank – a development back funded by the BRICS.

It will take some time – maybe ten years or more. In the meantime, China’s growing soft power and confidence is symbolised by an elegant woman carrying a distinctive, and now much sought after, black leather handbag.

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