Skip to main content
nathan vanderklippe

Chinese President Xi Jinping, middle, is surrounded by onlookers and television crew during an unannounced visit to a residential alley in Beijing, China Tuesday Feb. 25, 2014. Braving Beijing’s choking smog, the president chatted with residents in his latest public relations effort.The Associated Press

The alley that leads to Wang Yueping's home is barely wider than a man's shoulders. The apartment he rents with his wife is 190 square feet. It has a makeshift shower, but no toilet. It is located in the pretty Yu'er Hutong alleyway district of Beijing, a living reminder of the city's old character, steps from the Jade River. But it is small and spartan even by the standards of modern urban China.

Yet last month, an instantly recognizable face appeared here – and, not long after, erupted on social and state media – as Xi Jinping, the country's President, stopped by for a quick stroll, unannounced. It was the latest seemingly unscripted appearance from a leader whose careful crafting of a public Everyman image has earned him comparisons to China's most famous leader, Mao Zedong, himself master of manufacturing an avuncular image that to this day masks the many millions who died under his watch.

Mr. Xi "is building a Mao Zedong-like personality cult. And this is, you can say, quite disturbing. This is turning back the clock," said Willy Lam, a professor at the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

This month marks one year since Mr. Xi became Chinese president, the man charged with guiding the country away from the shoals of debt, pollution and slowing growth – while at the same time steering the Communist Party away from the fractious dangers of public opprobrium.

He has centralized power in dramatic fashion, using anti-corruption campaigns to weed out rivals in state-owned enterprises and all levels of government, including the powerful Zhou Yongkang, a former Politburo Standing Committee member. Mr. Xi has inserted himself as the head of powerful new committees to oversee national security, Internet security and censorship, in addition to a "leading group for overall reform" and another for military reform.

But perhaps most importantly, he has assiduously cultivated an image as a different kind of leader, one more immune to the temptations of luxury at Zhongnanhai, where China's leadership lives, and the graft that has made his predecessors inordinately wealthy. He has sought to hammer home the point in a series of walkabouts – what some might call stunts.

In the fall, there was the visit to a Beijing "steamed bun," or baozi, shop, where Mr. Xi wandered in to eat decidedly unsophisticated food. There was, last April, the taxi drive through Beijing, with Mr. Xi hopping in a cab in a shocking departure from the normal practice of travel in street-clearing motorcades (the trip was initially confirmed, then subsequently denied by state media; Western observers are convinced it happened). "Everyone is equal," Mr. Xi was quoted as saying to the taxi driver, "and I'm from the grassroots, too."

There was the February hutong stroll. "I've come here to inquire about your living conditions," Mr. Xi asked in the morning visit near Mr. Wang's home, according to local accounts of the visit. There are suggestions it wasn't a spur-of-the-moment stopover: Shortly before, local community officials had come to tidy up. But the presence in the hutong of China's highest authority, a man who has consolidated a degree of personal power unmatched by any recent predecessor, left an indelible mark on Mr. Wang – particularly since, like the area's residents, the President wasn't wearing a mask on a day when Beijing was smothered in smog.

"It felt like he was trying to pass a message to us, like we are breathing the same air, and we are experiencing the same fate," Mr. Wang said. "He didn't make me feel like he was high and unreachable. That's why I felt it was okay to ask him to take a photo with us."

The resulting image graces the front cover of a Beijing magazine, which Mr. Wang keeps on hand at his nearby tattoo shop. At its centre is a smiling Mr. Xi, his head rising above a small cluster of local residents in a swirl of perfectly parted, jet-black hair.

As if to underscore the rising importance of image in China, its primary television network, CCTV, has hired the award-winning man who designed the sets for Good Morning America, The Colbert Report and The Daily Show in hopes of looking as good as the rest of the world.

Recent weeks have seen an additional flurry of presidential image-related discussion, after Mr. Xi's likeness was published in cartoon form in February. Rotund, his eyes gazing optimistically upward, the President was portrayed holding a sign saying: "Undertaking my kind of work means that I basically don't have any time to myself." The answer: In those rare moments of free time, his hobbies include reading, martial arts, swimming and soccer. The Global Times, a Communist Party-run tabloid, interpreted the cartoon this way: "His wide-toed stance is deliberate to make the President seem more open to the people."

But it's not just image management that Mr. Xi has learned from Mao. Take his crackdown on bloggers and activists, a broad effort to squash a flourishing of freer speech online in recent years. Mr. Xi "learned from Mao the need for strict control in anything to do with ideology. If the Internet is in the hands of the people, it means it's out of control," said Hu Xingdou, a professor at Beijing Science and Engineering University. There are, he said, "many signs of the Mao age in the ideology" of Mr. Xi.

Mao may have been responsible for unspeakable atrocities in China, with tens of millions who starved or were killed under his tenure, and deep, enduring psychological wounds. But he is still deified by many in China, a testament to the enduring power of the image he and his predecessors were able to craft as a man of the people. That may make him a model Mr. Xi deems worthy of emulation.

What remains unclear is to what end Mr. Xi is doing all of this. He is consolidating power and indelibly tying the country's future to his own face. But why? Mr. Lam believes it's power for the sake of power. Zhengxu Wang, deputy director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, has a more charitable view. Mr. Xi "firmly believes that reforms need to take place, that corrupt officials need to be removed and some structural changes need to take place in the economy. So I think he wants to have the power to be able to do those things," he said. Currying an Everyman image, he said, may be one element in that strategy.

"Xi Jinping understands," he said, "that the leader needs to be felt as very close to the people."

Follow me on Twitter: @nvanderklippe