On the morning of Dec. 28, a man eating meat buns in a local eatery in Beijing surprised the whole country. The man, President Xi Jinping, quietly walked into a traditional eatery named Qingfeng, joined the line with his three security guards and ordered six pork buns, a bowl of stewed liver and a dish of vegetables amounting to 21 Yuan — about $3.50.
The pork bun news broke on Weibo, a -like mobile site popular in China. At first the news was not published in any official newspapers, but rather spread through Weibo. Reports of the president’s culinary excursion caused a stir among the Chinese people as such a political show is rare. Typical depictions of government officials in China conjur up images of luxuriant politicians followed by an entourage.
A few years ago, when President Obama unexpectedly dropped by a Five Guys restaurant in Washington, D.C. for a cheesburger, some people in China remarked that President Obama presented himself as a man of the people, a categorization which Chinese officials often struggle to distance themselves from. Now it seems that Chinese leaders have taken this critique all too seriously and are retooling their public personas with some help from their American counterparts.
While President Xi works hard at appearing in touch with his people, the political control he exerts on them grows stiffer. The government has realized the power of Weibo in quickly spreading news at the grass-root level, and how it can act like a breeding ground for political dissent. The government has responded by silencing several influential Weibo users. Government surveillance can now delete controversial comments or posts.
The widespread popularity of the president’s meat bun show has led to a series of contrived “chance encounters” by the news media with politicans. On Dec. 31, a television news station in Zhengzhou City broadcasted that a journalist happened to meet a party secretary on the subway. On Jan. 1, the Weibo account of Legal Evening News wrote that one of its reporters unexpectedly encountered the assistant minister of Ministry of Public Security patrolling on a street in the early morning hours. Moreover, on Jan 25, residents of Changsha City witnessed a local party secretary diligently sweeping a road. Though some people claim to feel sickened by this obvious and manufactured political showmanship, their disapproval has not been able to stop the skyrocketing demand for “the President meal” at the now extremely popular tourist spot — Qingfeg eatery.