The fan site posted rare early photographs of Xi and his family members — highly unusual in China, where the private lives of officials remain shrouded in secrecy. There are references to Xi’s mottoes and his favorite sports. And the site refers to the Communist Party’s top leader by an affectionate nickname, “Pingping.”
The founder of the site, who declined to give his identity, said — in an online-only interview — that he is simply an ordinary “grass-roots person” and not a member of Xi’s publicity or media team. “I’m a fan of the party secretary,” he said. “I like him and support him.”
But many here who study the media are unconvinced the site is the work of real “fans,” saying it appears more like part of a well-oiled propaganda effort. With its professional style and use of standard journalism techniques, “it is definitely not from some ordinary grass-roots-level netizen,” said Zhang Zhian, an expert on new media from Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-sen University. He guessed the fan club, if not really the work of an everyday follower, was either the work of the Party Central Committee’s General Office or Xinhua reporters.
Whatever its origin, the microblog seems the most obvious example yet of how Xi and his handlers, just one month into the top job, are deftly trying to cultivate an image of a new, more accessible leader — a Chinese Everyman who eschews unnecessary pomp, travels in a van without a huge entourage, crosses the street only at designated intersections and enjoys common pursuits, such as playing soccer.
The online Xi fan club also shows how Xi and the other top leaders, newly elevated at the party congress, which officially ended Nov. 14, seem more than their predecessors to understand the enormous power of the Internet, particularly the hugely popular microblogging sites collectively known as weibo, which in just three years have empowered ordinary Chinese with a voice and a new tool for holding corrupt local officials to account.
Rather than simply fighting weibo or trying to repress it, China’s new leaders are also joining it — and trying to shape it to their own ends.
“The party and the government have gained back the Internet microphone to a large degree,” wrote the influential Guangdong-based newspaper Southern Weekly, known for its independent voice and liberal views. “And they’ve gained the dominant right of speech on breaking news and on sensitive topics.”