President Xi’s Hot Buns: Chinese politics in one story

Chinese President Xi Jingping at a steamed bun resturant

The Chinese saying “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away” (天高皇帝远, tian gao, huangdi yuan) is often called upon to explain the transgressions, both petty and glaring, that permeate everyday life in China. But the leadership themselves work hard to cultivate this distance, with leaders after Mao working to maintain the facade of a faceless bureaucracy.

So when President Xi Jinping walked into a local Beijing lunch spot and ordered two dishes and a some buns with the regulars, it made quite a stir.

Now unofficially dubbed the Xi Combo, the Paramount Leader stood in line to order six pork and green onion baozi, a pork liver soup, some mustard greens, paid 21 yuan (equivalent to $4), carried his own tray, and sat down to finish his lunch. The restaurant quickly filled up with spectators. The next day over 400 customers lined up to get the Xi special. Some were even visiting ethnic Chinese tourists. According to an interview with Zhu Yuling, owner of the Qingfeng chain, sales are up 35 percent across Beijing, and it has also been reported that franchise applications have also increased.

Despite his rapid centralization of power to become the strongest ruler since Deng Xiaoping, Xi has cultivated a populist streak, hoping to cash in on some of the same energy which brought the now disposed potential rival Bo Xilai to prominence. Xi has instituted a crackdown on corruption, and his call for restraint in government travel, cars, gifts, and banquets have reportedly hurt sales of luxury goods. High-end bijiu companies have cried foul at empty tables and full bottles. And 5-star hotels have fought to lower their ratings to skirt restrictions.

Even Xi’s choice of lunch resembles the President’s order to stick to “four dishes and a soup” (四菜一汤, si cai yi tang)—an admonishment against extravagance with a history going back to the Ming dynasty—in order to cultivate good will and cement the CPC’s leadership. But Chinese netizens had mixed reactions. Supporters praised Xi, calling his unassuming move a “sign of hope.” Detractors were more cautious. After finding that a previously hyped story of Xi hailing his own taxi was false, commenters have also become suspect of a possible PR stunt, using an anonymous blogger as a astroturfing platform.

The government didn’t do well to calm their suspicions. On January 1st the propaganda department (aka the State Council Information Office) demanded that all websites delete a post (original text in Chinese) questioning the identity of the poster who broke the restaurant story and who seems to only to repost reports from official media.

But even astroturfed PR masquerading as feel-good stories can get out of hand and threaten the country’s well-balanced media harmony. By January 14 news outlets were officially ordered to “moderate the heat” of the story, and keywords linking the President’s name to “putting on an act” were blocked from Internet searches. Also to the government remains fearful of any public movement turning combative. Already there are reports of protestors in Beijing and Hangzhou also used steamed buns as a protest against “Boss Xi” and to draw attention to grivences such as home demolitions

All the aspects of a great Chinese political story are here. The almost saint-like status of the leadership, the holy relic of the President’s now removed dining chair, and the ongoing blessings of the Xi Combo. A rich princeling slumming it with the commoners, slurping pork guts in an effort to set a good example for cadres. A hot news story that may or may not be a stunt, but we can’t let that speculation ruin our good press. And finally the realization that it’s too hot for our carefully controlled harmony and invokes too much leader worship, time to denounce it.