Tea Leaf Nation
Why China's buzzing about President Xi Jinping's simple meal of steamed buns and pig innards.
Chinese President Xi Jinping walks into the Qing Feng Bun Shop. After lining up like everyone else, he orders steamed buns, pig innard soup, and stir-fried vegetables for about $3.50. After paying for the meal himself, he sits down at a small table….
It sounds like a joke without a punch line. But Xi’s Dec. 28 lunchtime visit to a restaurant in western Beijing represents a striking contrast to the usual way the Communist Party presents itself to the Chinese people.
If the medium is the message, it’s surely revealing that news of Xi’s bun outing first broke in social media, when several eyewitnesses uploaded photos on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter. The images quickly went viral. One Weibo user gushed, "Fellow users, my eyes did not deceive me! Here are the pictures!" Another quipped, "The whole city smells like buns." Many users lauded the president as "calm" and "low-key."
It’s not that Chinese are unaccustomed to depictions of their leaders mixing with the proletariat: Newscasts on China Central Television (CCTV), China’s largest television network, often include stories of top cadres visiting the poor or sharing a home-cooked meal with ordinary folks. But the Communist Party jealously guards the image of its top brass, quashing any coverage that hasn’t been closely stage-managed, even when it’s favorable. The CCTV segments look staged and feel formulaic: Top officials are almost always followed by a large entourage of underlings and cameras, with a voiceover from the newscaster praising the leader’s affability and down-home charm.
The exceptions are extremely rare and newsworthy. In April 2013, a Beijing taxi driver claimed to have picked up Xi for a short ride, but the authorities quickly and sternly denied the report. In February 2013, when Prime Minister Li Keqiang paid a surprise visit to an impoverished family in the region of Inner Mongolia, a naked little boy ran into a nearby closet to hide from cameras, but not before accidentally flashing the nation — CCTV allowed the image to run on its newscast, which critics hailed as progress.
But on his recent lunch outing, Xi went even further. He didn’t bring reporters from any state-controlled media — in fact, he appeared accompanied by just two men, whose identities could not be readily ascertained. One shaky video clip shows Xi slurping soup, paying no heed to awestruck diners who sidle up to have their photos taken with him. In another, Xi obligingly poses for photos as a crowd besieges him with smartphone cameras. The move may have been a stroke of PR genius: Newly armed with grainy (and refreshingly unmodified) photos of their president eating steamed buns, Xi’s online supporters can finally hold their ground when faced with photos of former U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke buying his own coffee, or U.S. President Barack Obama chomping down on a burger. Those images have long been popular on the Chinese Internet as an example of how leaders behave in a free and open society.
Xi’s unfiltered bun outing nonetheless failed to mollify some critics. One user wrote, "What we need are solutions to real problems, like air and water pollution, food safety, healthcare, and education, not publicity shows." The user asked rhetorically what Xi has accomplished as president "other than intensifying censorship and killing free speech? Oh, he increased our taxes." Taking a swipe at what he called pro-American liberals, conservative law professor Wu Danhong retorted on Weibo, "When the American president buys lunch at a restaurant, the public intellectuals in China," code for liberal reformists, "are full of praise." But "when the Chinese president gets some buns," Wu continued, "the liberals are just pretending to be deaf-mutes."
The viral success of Xi’s restaurant visit shows how starved Chinese people are for authenticity from their leadership. It also suggests that Xi remains serious about keeping the "low-key" appellation often given him in state-run media. Given the lavish perks and lifestyles often bestowed on those in China’s Communist firmament, it’s a designation that’s hard to win, and likely hard to keep. But Xi seems determined to try.