BEIJING — In his first few months as China’s leader, Xi Jinping has moved aggressively to dismantle the Chinese public’s long-standing image of officials as wooden robots full of empty speeches and corrupt motives.
Instead, with a sophisticated public relations strategy, Xi and his top advisers have introduced something previously unseen among the higher echelons of Chinese government: a retail politician.
They have employed modern tactics familiar to anyone who has endured a U.S. election — driving the narrative, attacking government waste and casting Xi as a plainspoken, unadorned man of the people. The approach reflects a new reality confronting China’s leaders in an age of social media and cellphones in which they no longer retain total control over the message. To adapt, experts say, they are trying to shape the news, in addition to often censoring it.
The PR campaign has largely succeeded in boosting Xi’s image as he prepares to take the ceremonial title of president Thursday. It has also helped the Communist Party, which has been struggling with public disillusionment and anger over its policies and authoritarian grip on power.
Skeptics say they are still waiting for signs of substance behind the style, and some within the party worry that the PR effort has raised expectations too high and risks a backlash if Xi and his team can’t deliver on reforms.
“The messaging has been very sophisticated and skillfully executed,” said one former official in the propaganda department, speaking on the condition of anonymity like most party members for fear of reprisal. “But they are still in that honeymoon phase all new leaders receive. It’s too soon to tell how this will end up.”
From the moment Xi stepped onto the stage as the party’s new leader in November, the difference was clear.
“I’ve kept you all waiting,” he said to a room full of reporters shocked to hear a party leader apologize for his behavior.
Many online later praised his deep, mellifluous voice and folksy language — a stark contrast to past leaders’ speeches, which were chock full of jargon and Communist slogans.
In the following weeks, Xi launched a highly publicized anti-corruption campaign and called on officials to reduce the daily reams of official documents and speeches they churned out. He banned all forms of ostentation surrounding leaders’ events — no more red carpets, welcome banners or traffic-inducing motorcades. Lavish government banquets were cut down to just four dishes and a soup.
“He’s been targeting those things most visible to the public,” said one retired and reform-minded party official. “They are easier to change than abstract concepts like human rights or rule of law that underpin the system.”
Those within the party as well as outside analysts describe Xi’s PR push as the result of careful planning and execution. But as with most things related to China’s top leaders, the strategists behind it have been shrouded in secrecy.
Communication experts who have advised party leaders in the past say there is no formal team, such as the White House’s communications office, devoted to this kind of work. And the overall decision to push this new down-to-earth image of China’s leaders — in speeches, online and at events such as Xi’s visits to poor, rural areas — almost certainly involved the other six members on the Politburo Standing Committee who rule China with Xi.
Many who have worked in or with the party on communications say the divisions most involved in the campaign are the propaganda department; the party secretariat, which manages the work of Xi and top leaders; and the Policy Research Office, the party’s highest think tank.
“People think of it as this massive bureaucracy,” one former party spokesman said. “But at the highest levels, where you’re executing plans on behalf of the standing committee, everything else gets dropped and there is a powerful focus on results.”
One man many believe has played a major role in crafting the strategy is Wang Huning, an official with a deep understanding of U.S.- and Western-style politics, according to several with ties to party leadership.
A thin, bookish man who leads the Policy Research Office, he helped develop many of President Jiang Zemin’s most important policies. And when Jiang ceded leadership to China’s current president, Hu Jintao, Wang managed to become a driving force behind Hu’s policies as well — a miraculous political feat given the competition for power between the two leaders over the past decade.
“I would describe him as a Karl Rove or David Plouffe — an idea man and consigliere figure,” said Christopher Johnson, a former top CIA China analyst now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This is a guy who thinks on a broad level, who managed to create a wide portfolio and proved himself to be not only damn smart but adaptable.”
Wang, 57, traveled extensively with Jiang and in recent years was with Hu on nearly all his trips abroad. Since November, he has played a similar role for Xi, appearing at his side on almost all domestic trips.
As an international politics scholar, Wang visited the United States in the 1980s, traveling to more than 30 cities and nearly 20 universities. He captured what he saw in a 1991 book, “America Against America,” describing the country’s competing visions of itself.
As dean of the law school at Fudan University in Shanghai, he drilled into his students the importance of persuasion, driving them to win a Western-style debate competition in Singapore.
Other officials surrounding Xi are also described as having a high level of fluency with modern political messaging.
Wang Qishan, in charge of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, is known for his crisis management skills and deft touch with the press.
He Yiting, who serves as Wang Huning’s deputy in the Policy Research Office, has traveled extensively with Xi during the past five years and spearheaded a 2009 series of party training books, bearing titles such as “The Art of Leaders’ Public Image,” “Service-Oriented Government” and “Leaders and the Public Media.”
But the driving force behind the PR effort, many say, is Xi himself.
China has had charismatic leaders before. Mao Zedong built his reign on a cult of personality. Jiang displayed unusual liveliness on visits abroad. And China’s outgoing prime minister, Wen Jiabao, is known for cultivating an avuncular “Grandpa Wen” persona on visits to disaster sites.
But in the past three months, analysts say, Xi has shown an unmatched level of confidence and ease in wielding his public image.
For a leader in China to differentiate himself so sharply from his predecessors is unheard of, even risky, said Robert Kuhn, author of a biography of Jiang. “If read incorrectly, it could be interpreted as slightly embarrassing or an implicit criticism of his predecessors,” he said.
Yet as a member of the “princeling” group — officials born into privilege as descendants of revolutionary heroes — Xi has pulled it off because of how quickly he has managed to draw on allies and consolidate his power in the party and the military, analysts say.
“In the past, leaders got ahead by keeping a low profile before elders and the public,” said one retired official from the powerful Organization Department, which controls promotions within the party. “To elevate yourself would be seen as proud, boastful, reaching above your place.”
By contrast, a month after Xi took power, the state-run Xinhua News Agency published a massive profile of him. Titled “Man of the people, statesman of vision,” it included details about his wife and daughter — topics previously considered untouchable by state media.
Equally unprecedented were photos from Xi’s early days that ran with the story. Many evoked a feeling of Camelot-like mythmaking, such as one of Xi pedaling a bicycle with his young daughter behind him, a grin on his face, her little hand clutching his waist.
Along with this new image of openness and a grass-roots touch, however, have been dark counterpoints, suggesting that the old ways of hard-line message management will not change.
While Xi’s administration has surprised many by embracing the Internet and social media tools, it has also tightened the state’s grip online, passing real-name registration laws, shutting down long-used methods of circumventing China’s firewall and cracking down on critics.
Even the state historian entrusted with writing a biography of Xi’s father said he has been harassed by authorities, enduring hours of interrogation and threats to his job after speaking with foreign reporters last year.
The biographer, Jia Juchuan, says he believes his cellphone and his home in Shanxi province are being monitored, and the publication of a second volume on Xi’s father has been held up by authorities for more than three years.
He now worries it is being revised to fit new politically correct narratives.
“Now that he’s become China’s leader, anything to do with Xi is a much more sensitive topic,” he said.
Liu Liu contributed to this report.