Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s trip to the United States last week, covered in minute detail in the official media here, offered the first extended chance for the Chinese public to size up the man tapped to be their next leader. And judging from the initial reviews, Xi is proving a surprise hit with ordinary people.
Comments posted on the popular microblogging sites known as weibo — as good a barometer of real sentiment as exists in China — suggest that Xi has struck a chord by using the simple everyday language of most Chinese and sprinkling his speeches with common cultural references, including a line from a pop song and an advertising jingle.
Xi seemed at ease around his American hosts, whether climbing into a tractor cab in Iowa or sitting tie-less during the fourth quarter of a Los Angeles Lakers game as he laughed alongside Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
It’s not an image Chinese are used to after the decade-long presidency of the stiff and formal-looking Hu Jintao, who often comes across in photos as a typical Communist Party bureaucrat. And many here noted the difference.
“The Chinese style in official talks for the past 10 years is just repeating what the book says, with no taste or character,” wrote one weibo user, using the name Qianfengqingyin. “Xi Jinping’s remarks during his U.S. visit are quite vivid and new.”
Another weibo user, Zongjun, said that in his speech in Washington on Sino-U.S. relations, Xi used “standard Mandarin, magnetic male deep voice with measured tones,” adding that Xi “has a professional TV anchorman style.”
Xi’s visit, and his easygoing style, drew comparisons to earlier Chinese leaders who showed more personality and self-confidence on the global stage.
While visiting a Texas rodeo in 1979, Deng Xiaoping famously donned a cowboy hat, to the delight of his hosts, producing an iconic image that helped brighten Americans’ perception of China. And Jiang Zemin was renowned for sometimes using English words and breaking out into Broadway show tunes.
Xi may have also learned a few tips from his host, the quintessential down-to-earth, Amtrak-riding ordinary guy, Vice President Biden, who endeared himself to Chinese during his visit here in August by bantering casually, eating in a run-down local restaurant and paying the $12 tab out of his pocket, and cracking jokes to ease the formality. At his arrival ceremony, Biden told one member of the Chinese delegation: “If I had hair like yours, I’d be president.”
Of course, relatively few people here have been closely following Xi’s travels — New York Knicks star Jeremy Lin is a much bigger trending topic on weibo. But in the new era of microblogging and instant news, Xi is getting far more exposure than any other Chinese leader at this stage of the transition to power, and he appears comfortable in the spotlight.
“Xi’s visit is not a hot topic. People barely know Xi,” said Michael Anti, a popular blogger and advocate of Internet freedom. But, he said, “Weibo users are following Xi’s news about Hollywood, [the] tractor, the NBA.. . . This is now a weibo era, so people can read more from reporters on the trail through their accounts.”
Many weibo users and Chinese media outlets expressed surprise when Xi, in his speech at the State Department, followed a remark about the lack of a precedent for building a cooperative U.S.-China partnership with a phrase from a song: “May I ask where the path is? It is where you take your first step.”
The line came from a Chinese TV drama popular in the mid-1980s titled “Journey to the West,” also known as “The Monkey King Story” after the classical Chinese epic on which it was based.
On the sensitive issue of human rights, Xi told U.S. lawmakers that in his talks with the White House, he “stressed that China has made tremendous and well-recognized achievements in the field of human rights over the past 30-plus years.” Then he added, “There is no best, only better,” borrowing the advertising line of an electronics chain here that has become a popular phrase, used in everyday life.
Xi showed that he is up on his American pop culture references, too. Meeting with high school students at the International Studies Learning Center near Los Angeles, he joked that he wished he had more free time, “but to borrow the title from an American film, it’s like ‘Mission: Impossible.’ ”
Many Chinese also appeared to enjoy Xi’s account of how, in 1992, when he was a local party official in Fuzhou, in Fujian province, he helped an elderly American woman find the village of Guling, where the woman’s late husband had lived as a child but never had a chance to revisit.
Some local TV and newspaper outlets ran pieces on Guling, including one paper that published the old People’s Daily photographs of Xi meeting the woman and the house where her husband had lived.
Xi used the Guling story to tell a luncheon audience in Washington how “people to people” contacts were important for developing the relationship between the United States and China. “My friends, I believe there are many such touching stories between our two peoples,” he said.
Here in China, the story seemed to put a more human face on Xi, who remains largely a blank slate for most people.
“It’s like a story from Hollywood, and it’s from Xi Jinping, and he finished second half of the story,” said one weibo user called rxu Xu Ruifeng. “It shows he has some unique ways.”
Chinese are more excited about basketball than politics, and the sight of Xi at the Lakers game prompted about 9,000 immediate comments on weibo — including some noting the contrast between Xi and other leaders.
“Oh, quite surprised, the serious Chinese political figures are more real now,” said one user, PohuaiguijudeR.
Another user asked: “What will such a trendy person bring to our future?”
Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.