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China Censors Russian President Putin Placing Shawl Around China's First Lady, Peng Liyuan

( [email protected] ) Nov 11, 2014 04:30 PM EST

Putin and Liyuan
Russian President placing shawl around China's First Lady, Peng Liyuan. Photo: AP

When Russian president Vladamir Putin placed his jacket around the wife of Chinese president Xi Jinping during a live television broadcast Monday night, the world collectively winced while Chinese authorities edited the gesture out of any rebroadcasts.

It all unfolded during the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation event in Beijing where the Russian and Chinese presidents were attending a fireworks ceremony. Putin is seen placing the shawl around the Chinese president's wife's shoulders, but she quickly removed the garment when prompted by an aide.

The seemingly harmless act of chivalry by Putin was amplified by the Chinese president's nonchalant glance and the internet's reaction, calling Putin gallant and Xi uncaring.

While the video quickly made the rounds with a focus on the exchange, Chinese authorities scrubbed every trace, including hashtags, comments, and links to the video on China's social media outlets such as Weibo and WeChat.

Peng Liyuan, the Chinese First Lady, is a popular contemporary folk singer in China and has enjoyed fame before her husband took office in 2013. She has taken on a much more public role than her predecessors and was named the 57th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes.

The couple has been married since 1987 and the public image of their love is very important to China's citizens. Xi has often been photographed picking flowers or holding an umbrella for his wife, and those images are readily shared on China's social media outlets.

But this gesture by Putin seems to be more about the differences in what's publicly acceptable in each country's culture. 

"China is traditionally conservative on public interaction between unrelated men and women, and the public show of consideration by Putin may provide fodder for jokes, which the big boss probably does not like," Beijing-based historian and independent commentator Zhang Lifan commented.

Some media outlets are already calling this "coatgate," changing the focus from an act of kindness to some kind of political statement. The Australian news agency Sydney Morning Herald even went so far as to suggest that Putin was flirting with the first lady.

USA Today reports that Putin is seen as a heartthrob among many Chinese woman for his "macho, man-of-action image." The recently-single Russian president is notorious for his exotic tiger hunting trips, black belt rank in Judo, and shirtless trips to the beach.

China's state news agency, Xinhua, as well as the state television network, CCTV, have not reported further on the incident.