Even as China’s President Xi Jinping maintains a tough stance on foreign affairs – admonishing the United States for welcoming the Dalai Lama last week, and labeling Japan a “trouble maker” on Tuesday – the leader is offering a softer side to his constituents. Also Tuesday, Xi took a surprise stroll through one of Beijing’s oldest quarters, chatting with residents despite the day’s heavy smog.
VISUAL CONTEXT: Air pollution in China
The visit, unusual in a country where politicians’ personal lives are famously inaccessible, is the president’s second public outing in as many months: on December 28, Xi made an unannounced trip to a steamed-bun shop in Beijing, minus the entourage, where he purchased his own lunch (and boosted the restaurant’s subsequent sales of the “Uncle Xi Combo”.) Tuesday’s foray looked to be building on such attempts to normalize Xi’s image in a notable departure from his predecessor Hu Jintao, who spent his ten-year term isolated from the Chinese public.
Xi’s choice of Beijing’s Nanluoguxiang neighborhood is noteworthy. Not only is the enclave home to a youthful population representative of China’s growing (and critical) urban demographic, it is also plagued by dangerous air conditions. (On Tuesday, Beijing issued the city’s second-highest pollution warning.) Yet Xi’s visit — presumably meant to channel China’s Qianlong Emperor, who is said to have mingled with commoners while in disguise — is surrounded by a hint of artifice that could derail the leader’s latest populist outreach. Amateur videos that show the president strolling strangely empty streets recall the orchestrated nature of a taxi ride the president reportedly took in April 2013: a newspaper sympathetic to Beijing published a story recounting how Xi had hailed a cab to question the driver about the realities of Chinese life, but which was later debunked as a PR stunt by other media outlets.
Another supposedly spontaneous initiative — an online cartoon published last week, and entitled Where has Chinese President Xi Jinping’s time gone? — has also cast doubts about the authenticity of Xi’s “man of the people” cred. The rare caricature of a Chinese leader shows Xi wearing a casual outfit, surrounded by images of his hobbies (i.e., soccer, martial arts, and books). But that the positive spin on Xi’s image was published by a website with strong links to the central government, which typically prohibits political satire, has prompted many local analysts to dismiss the caricature as a yet another propaganda tool.
Not that such aspersions are slowing the positive public reaction to Xi’s recent Beijing foray. Despite the government’s inability (or reluctance) to aggressively combat air pollution — a recent report deemed Beijing “barely suitable” for living – Chinese netizens largely applauded the president’s outing, and particularly Xi’s decision to eschew a facemask while chatting with Nanluoguxiang residents; the comment “breathing together, sharing the same fate” multiplied Tuesday across China’s vast blogosphere Weibo. (It’s worth noting that the oft-repeated phrase originated from the Beijing city government site.)
Nonetheless, look for the warm public reception to cool in coming weeks. If, as environmental experts warn, the wave of smog blanketing Beijing worsens, China’s leader will have to do more than purchase an “Uncle Xi Combo” or take a taxicab ride to win over his citizens for the long haul.