Tea Leaf Nation

Naked Lunch

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.

Fair Use/Weibo

Tea Leaf Nation

2013, According to the Chinese Communist Party

State media on U.S. "dysfunction," Japan's "dangerous direction," and the "gradual rise" of Africa's middle class. 

What did the year in foreign policy look like in Chinese official circles? Divining the thoughts and motives of China's leadership is a famously abstruse exercise even for Chinese citizens, who are often left to parse bland quotes or keep their ears peeled for rumor. But one reliable, albeit indirect indication of the Zeitgeist of Chinese officialdom comes by way of a 2013 foreign affairs retrospective published on the website of the People's Daily, the ruling Communist Party's paper of record. On Dec. 21, in a slight nod to quasi-democratic crowd-sourcing, the site opened online voting for the "top 10 world news" for 2013, asking readers to select the 10 best from a meager list of 13 People's Daily stories published over the past year (the results are here).

Together, the stories form a clear narrative about the Chinese Communist Party's view of the world -- self-congratulations for continuing economic reforms coming out of Beijing, a good measure of Schadenfreude about troubles in the United States' backyard, and continued efforts to befriend Africa.

The compilers cannot be accused of provincialism. Of the dozen-plus choices offered, five focus on Asia, four on the Middle East, two on the United States, and two on Africa. Only two stories are explicitly China-centered, although they reflect a predictably rose-tinted view of the party. The first, voted the top story of 2013, describes how the third plenum meeting, a high-level political conclave held in November, "confirmed a comprehensive blueprint to deepen reforms." The other reminds readers that the "Chinese Dream," a still-vague phrase popularized by President Xi Jinping to sketch the country's new direction, involves "everybody winning" by "integrating China's renaissance with the world's progress." 

By contrast, the People's Daily selections focusing on the United States present China's greatest geopolitical rival as a paranoid nation in decline. The second-most significant story of 2013, according to voting results, covered former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's bombshell revelation about widespread NSA wiretaps, which Chinese media frequently call "PRISM-gate" in reference to one NSA project's code name. PRISM-gate garnered a nomination because it had a "serious effect" on the "public trust in the U.S. government." The U.S. federal government shutdown, lasting from Oct. 1 to Oct. 16 -- which People's Daily opined was an expression of "worsening political polarization," not to mention the "intensification of structural conflicts in U.S. society" -- also featured. 

Japan, China's other rival -- and wartime enemy -- got a single nomination: "Japanese Government Continues to Move 'Right.'" The People's Daily complains that under new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office in Dec. 2012, the Japanese government has engaged in "frequent backsliding on the historical question of the Diaoyu Islands," a disputed pile of rocks that Japan administers and calls the Senkaku. This "rightward move" has prompted "international society to increase its vigilance." The paper doesn't explain what that means, but it may refer to China's surprise announcement in late November of an "air defense identification zone" that included those very same islands.

It's common to see Chinese press play fast and loose in the service of brow-beating Japan, but factual elisions particularly bedevil another selection: "Philippines Hit by Typhoon; China Rushes to Assist." That article notes that after the devastating Nov. 11 Typhoon Haiyan ended over 5,500 Filipino lives and left millions homeless, China not only "sent international relief teams" from its own Red Cross to assist, but mobilized the PLA Navy's "Peace Ark" ship. Both statements are true, but misleading. China initially donated a paltry $100,000 to Haiyan relief, upping the total and dispatching Red Cross personnel a week later -- after international observers and even some Chinese state media complained about the inaction. Even that revised sum is less than the aid package offered by Swedish furniture giant Ikea. 

In contrast to its prevailing pessimism and bombast, the People's Daily list did evince some refreshing bullishness on Africa, a continent to which China has pledged $20 billion worth of infrastructure and agriculture loans. On one hand, the paper nominated the Sept. 21 terrorist attack on Nairobi's Westgate mall as a top story, calling it a signal that "behind the 'rise of Africa' there is social inequality, corruption, high unemployment," and other ills that catalyze terrorism, a problem the continent "needs to solve." But that rise is still real: The paper listed as another top story the fact that in May, African Development Bank President Donald Kaberuka announced that average per capita GDP for the continent had exceeded $1,000. This "symbolic event" showcased the "development potential" of Africa, rooted, the paper says, in "the discovery of rich oil reserves, natural gas, and other resources." China's economic ties with Africa, the article concludes, has become "an important factor" driving the continent's growth. 

And what of the world in 2014? Here, the People's Daily is a bit stingy with forecasts. That's also true of Chinese state media generally, which mostly sticks to predicting domestic matters like the direction of economic development, employment figures, and real estate prices. If the Communist Party has a bet on where its frayed relations with the United States will go, or how China's territorial dispute with Japan will play out in the East China Sea, it's not inclined to share.

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