The cellphone footage above shows something you don't see often: A Chinese president taking a stroll in a Beijing alleyway.
Xi Jinping was walking in the trendy traditional neighborhood of Nanluoguxiang on Tuesday, stopping to chat with local youths and visiting the home of a nearby resident, the Associated Press reports. It appeared to be yet another carefully planned, nominally impromptu event designed to show that China's president is more in touch with the people he leads than his predecessors (in another recent move, he ate buns at a humble Beijing restaurant).
China's leaders generally rarely appear in public, instead preferring to remain in official buildings, luxury compounds and private limos. Still, many people in China are less surprised at the appearance of the video than by one notable omission from it: Xi is not wearing a mask.
Face masks have become de rigueur in Beijing at times of low air quality, and, as you can probably see from the video, Beijing is experiencing a lot of smog right now. For the first time ever, China has declared an orange alert over parts of the country and shut down some factories and construction sites (it apparently didn't work). One man in the province of Hebei is even trying to sue the government for the poor air quality.
It seems unlikely that Xi left his mask at home by accident, and few failed to notice his hint. "Xi Jinping visits Beijing’s Nanluoguxiang amid the smog: Breathing together, sharing the fate,” ran the headline on state news agency Xinhua, a reference to an air quality-related phrase made popular by the Beijing Times' Weibo account.
As the story was posted to Weibo, commentators picked up on the lack of a mask, too. "It surely deserves a thumbs up, breathing smog together," wrote a user named Maxuan. Another user named Pingping081 addressed Xi directly: "President Xi, we support you. Hope you take good care and making steady progress, lead us walk out of smog and receive a new era!" In general, the Weibo comments were largely positive (leading to some speculation that there may have been censorship involved), but one user wondered whether "big Xi" was setting a bad example by risking his own health.
Xi's move and the rise of the "breathing together" slogan seems to tie in with a new tactic in dealing with China's now-notorious smog: If we can't beat it, let's learn to live with it. Xinhua recently reported that the smog had "awakened the creativity of individuals who want cleaner air," while a post on the CCTV Web site listed the "five surprising benefits" of pollution (that article was scrubbed after it was widely ridiculed, but not before Tea Leaf Nation translated a copy).
The most surprising reasoning yet, however, came from Zhang Zhaozhong, a professor of military strategy at PLA National Defense University. In an interview with CCTV, Zhang explained that the smog would make it "almost impossible" for laser-based weapons to work. Zhang was later forced to elaborate after his comments went viral. "I just stated a laser weapon's weakness," Zhang said, according to the South China Morning Post. "I don't support smog."
(Many thanks to our Beijing researcher for Elena Liu for translation in this post)