Home >News >World >Putin warms up to Chinese first lady as flirting scores on diplomatic high table
Vladimir Putin (right) with Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan at the APEC summit in Beijing. Photo: Reuters
Vladimir Putin (right) with Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan at the APEC summit in Beijing. Photo: Reuters

Putin warms up to Chinese first lady as flirting scores on diplomatic high table

Putin's moves at the APEC summit isn't the first time a leader of a nation has been seen showing his softer self

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s little segue with the Chinese first lady at the 21 leader Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit held at the Water Cube stadium at Beijing has attracted almost as much attention as the meet itself. During the summit Putin found himself seated next to Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan, who in turn was seated next to her husband, Chinese president Xi Jinping.

Even as Xi engaged in some high-powered pow-wow with US president Barack Obama, sitting to his right, Putin appeared to turn on his charm with Peng. After some cozy conversation, he suddenly stood up and pulled out a tan coloured coat and wrapped it around her shoulders. The horse-riding, shirtless, newly-single, rifle-shooting, judo-fighting president’s move wasn’t too well-received by Peng. She smiled gracefully at him, but moments later handed over the coat to an attendant standing nearby and put on her own coat. The coatgate was first reported by Foreign Policy magazine.

Chinese state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) first caught the moment on video, which you can watch here. This was later picked up by other Chinese media outlets like Sina and Phoneix Media and also generated buzz on Weibo, the Chinese micro-blogging site. In fact a hash tag “Putin Gives Peng Liyuan His Coat" started doing the rounds on Weibo but given how well-guarded and censored Chinese internet space is, it wasn’t allowed to be there too long. The Chinese censors swiftly got into action and started a clean-up. Chinese news sites pulled the video story off while the censors also took it off Weibo. After all, China works overtime to maintain a clean public image of its top officials.

Light flirting isn’t quite as much of a no-no on diplomacy’s high table. Indeed, it isn’t the first time a president or a prime minister of a nation has been seen showing his softer self. US president Obama has a long list of such incidents on international stage. Starting with his November 2012 tour of Asia where he met the then Thailand prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Mynmar’s leader of the opposition Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Daily Mail called his meeting with the Thai leader flirty while the Drudge Report called Obama’s trip a touchy-feely one. “President Obama is practicing a new brand of foreign relations, appearing to flirt with Thailand’s attractive prime minister on his first stop of his three-day tour of Southeast Asia. The president and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra could be seen laughing together and exchanging playful glances through a state dinner at the Government House in Bangkok on Sunday," said the paper. On the same trip when he met Suu Kyi, he planted a platonic kiss on her cheek. In the pictures she definitely looked a little embarrassed. According to the few news reports, this incident didn’t create a furore though kissing in public between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman is considered inappropriate in Asian cultures.

In 2013, Obama was again caught in a controversy when during Nelson Mandela’s memorial on 10 December 2013, he was seen flirting with Denmark’s prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. They giggled, whispered and flirted which obviously didn’t go down well with US first lady Michelle Obama. During the same ceremony, Obama along with British prime minister David Cameron was photographed while taking a selfie with Thorning-Schmidt. Apparently, photos taken during the event show Obama switching seats with Michelle after selfie gaffe. The media around the world had a gala time playing around with headlines. But New York Post had a strong take on it. In an article titled Flirty Obama owes us an apology , author Andrea Peyser described the act as “a hormone-ravaged frat boy on a road trip to a strip bar."

His predecessor, George W. Bush, who was also present at the Mandela memorial service, was also seen getting chatty with Jordan’s Queen Raina. His wife Laura Bush, sitting next to him, didn’t appear too thrilled by her husband’s small talk skills. During his presidency in 2006, Bush caught the media’s attention for being too touchy with German chancellor Angela Merkel. During the G-8 summit held in St. Petersburg, Russia where Bush stepped behind Merkel, reached for her shoulders and gave her a quick massage taking the lady by surprise. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTQY1Aw9zcs) She actually shrugged him off suggesting it was a no-go zone. This lasted for only few seconds but was termed as Massage-Gate by the German media. In another incident in 2004, when Condoleezza Rice was appointed as the secretary of state, Bush planted two affectionate kisses on her cheek while introducing her at the White House. During the same ceremony, the new education secretary Margaret Spellings was also welcomed with a kiss planted strategically near the corners of her lips. “Is there too much kissing going on at the White House?" asked USA Today.

Asian leaders have also not lagged in flirt diplomacy. In 2008, during a meeting at the UN headquarters, Pakistan leader Asif Ali Zardari greeted the GOP vice presidential candidate and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin in an overfriendly manner. According to a report by The Christian Science Monitor, Zardari complemented her on her ‘gorgeous’ looks adding for good measure “Now I Know why the whole of America is crazy about you". Palin politely replied thank you. This so angered the hardliners back home in Pakistan that Zardari was issued a fatwa for shaming the nation with “indecent gestures, filthy remarks and repeated praise of a non-Muslim lady wearing short skirt."

Another Pakistani leader and former prime minister Shaukat Aziz tried to flirt with Rice during her first trip in 2005 according to a biography on Rice. In his book Twice as Good: Condoleezza Rice and Her Path to Power, author Marcus Marby narrated the incident in detail. During her meeting, Aziz stared at Rice’s eyes and said “he could conquer any woman in two minutes." Of course these claims were refuted by the Pakistan government after the book was published.

But does flirting help in getting any work done? The first woman to hold the powerful position of US secretary of state Madeleine Albright actually says yes. In a March 2009 TV interview on Real Time with Bill Maher show, he asked her if she flirted on the job and she replied, “I did. I did. Absolutely." “Well, I had a lot of different things that I did. I used to say... I was very nice and charming and I’d say I’ve come a very long way and I must be frank. But I danced. I sang and did all kinds of things," she said in the interview.

No harm, as they say, in mixing work with pleasure.

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