Tuesday April 23, 2019

PRESIDENT XI’S DOMESTIC CHARM OFFENSIVE

February 28, 2014

 Taking a page out of the public diplomacy book of US Presidents – Xi Jinping took a surprise stroll in one of Beijing’s traditional hutong neighborhoods earlier this week, stopping to chat with residents. President Xi also made another rare public appearance in December at a casual, steamed bun restaurant in Beijing. He delivered the annual, televised presidential New Year’s address from the president’s personal office for the first time, causing an outcry in demand for the state media to release the family photos that were perched behind Xi’s desk during his speech. Xi’s decision to bring his wife, singer Peng Liyuan, with him on several overseas visits is also largely unprecedented in the modern era and has been well received by Chinese citizens and foreign leaders alike.

Chinese leaders and the general public

Unlike in the US, Chinese senior leaders are usually detached from the public eye, preferring to lead very private lifestyles. One doesn’t have to wonder why when looking at pictures of the masses of ordinary citizens crowding around the president to take pictures on their smart phones when Xi visited the Beijing restaurant last December. His order (now known as the Presidential Combo) – six steamed buns, a plate of stir-fried pig liver, and steamed vegetables – instantly became a hot topic on social media as netizens and bloggers analyzed the contents of his lunch for hints on the direction of his foreign policy. For example, Xi’s plate of fried pig became an indictment of corrupt government officials – If officials demonstrate pig-like greed, they will be ‘fried’, or fired.

Despite this seemingly trivial analysis, Xi’s public appearances could be meant as a public signal that he is committed to a more transparent regime that also identifies with the concerns of the Chinese people. In an era where increasing numbers of high-level officials have been indicted for using public money to fund opulent lifestyles, Xi’s lunch in December only cost 21 Renminbi (or around $3.50), which is an affordable cost for the average urban resident. Also, holding conversations with hutong residents about their daily concerns, such as food price inflation and air quality, shows that senior leaders want to be knowledgeable about the lives of average citizens.

A new Charm Offensive?

Xi’s recent overtures in internal public diplomacy are comparable with his launch of an international charm offensive at the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) Summit in October 2013. His participation in the Summit and subsequent visits to Southeast Asia nations to announce trade deals were meant to smooth rifts in relations caused by heightened tensions over maritime disputes in the region earlier in 2013. Xi also used the opportunity to propose an Asian-run infrastructure development bank that could diversify the sources of funds for developing nations away from the US and Japanese-dominated Asian Development Bank. Just as Xi’s international charm offensive seeks to change the image of China from a maritime bully to a willing and important economic partner, Xi’s outings may seek to build a better image of his regime and political party within China.

Plagued by corruption, the Chinese Communist Party’s image is on the decline within Chinese society. Government officials of all levels have been indicted for corruption – funneling state resources into the personal coffers instead of redistributing tax funds for public goods, or taking bribes from businessmen and criminal groups who want to insure the state turns a blind eye to illegal practices. In addition to corruption, severe pollution and food safety problems top the concerns of Chinese people and present a governance challenge to the CCP. Thus, the Chinese people see Xi’s promises to crackdown on corruption as a much needed initiative to strengthen the Chinese state and society. Xi’s break with past traditions and practices can help restore the faith of the masses in the CCP.

For more information on Xi Jinping’s presidency, see the following news articles:

CSIS “China’s Charm Offensive Signals a New Strategic Era in Southeast Asia”

 

Los Angeles Times “China’s President Xi Jinping leads a Communist Charm Offensive”

 

New York Times “Xi Visits Beijing Neighborhood”

 

New York Times “Divining China’s Direction by what Xi Ate”

Pew Research Center “Inflation, Corruption, Inequality top list of Chinese public’s concerns”

 

For Chinese language news on this topic, see the sources below:

Sina (新浪) “独家:习近平探访北京胡同和居民聊知青经历”

Tencent Media Group (腾讯新闻) “习近平雾霾中走访北京胡同 询问地沟油去哪儿了”

Finance Network (财经网) “杜平:习近平雾霾天赴胡同串门或经慎重选择”

Compiled and edited by Amanda Conklin