On Wednesday, Chinese state media carried an announcement that a photograph of Xi Jinping had won China's top photojournalism prize, the National News Awards, dubbed "China's Pulitzer" by the expat That's magazine.
The picture, taken by the official Xinhua News Agency during the president's trip to Wuhan, in Hubei province, in July 2013, might not seem like a particularly notable photograph – neither dazzling technically or artistically framed. But even when it was first released, foreign observers were surprised by the photograph, and it went swiftly viral on Chinese microblogging sites.
It's a matter of context. In the photograph, Xi is standing in the rain, apparently in the middle of some kind of official visit. What's really unusual is how he is dressed. His pants are rolled up high above his ankles, in a crude attempt to keep them dry. More importantly, he's carrying his own umbrella. In the moment captured, one of the most important people in the world is looking decidedly like an average Joe.
For a Chinese leader, used to the strict control of state media and not susceptible to the whims of a voting public, such images are rare. But as Matt Schiavenza noted for the Atlantic when the picture first circulated, Xi appeared to be responding to subtle changes in the country:
Income inequality and corruption have sparked public anger in the country, and leading Communist Party officials have attracted attention for their displays of wealth and privilege. Having the president appear in a rain storm holding an umbrella doesn't actually change anything, of course, but it at least shows a down-to-earth style that's typically absent in Chinese politics.
This rainy photo is not an isolated effort. Xi has done lots of little things that further it: be it shooting a video in his rarely seen offices in Zhongnanhai or eating buns at a Beijing restaurant. As my colleague William Wan noted in March 2013, Xi appeared to be trying to be something that China had never really seen before: a retail politician.
And he's done big things, too, such as a huge anti-corruption drive (which some now view as a purge). Part of that tactic seems to be reflected in the photograph that gained the runner-up prize in the National News Awards, a Xinhua photograph of the disgraced Bo Xilai, handcuffed and escorted by two police officers, as the ousted Communist Party official faced trial.
Again, from a photography standard, this is not a particularly good picture. But symbolically, it was very important. In Xi's China, Bo had become a symbol of the state corruption that Xi was trying to change. (That he was a charismatic, populist and ruthlessly ambitious politician may have played a role, too).
Ultimately, these two photographs present a very calculated view of modern China — or, perhaps, a glimpse of how modern China wants to present itself. It is, unfortunately, a view apparently designed for China only. You may have noticed this post does not feature either photograph: Xinhua's Beijing office told The Washington Post that these prize-winning images were barred from publication by foreign media.
It's not necessarily a completely successful project, however: Online, doctored images of Xi holding a yellow umbrella and standing in Hong Kong have appeared, a nod to that city's recent pro-democracy protests and the object that came to symbolize them. It's a subtle twist on a subtle political message.