China's leader on PR offensive
New communist leader Xi Jinping is on a mission to soften the image of Chinese officialdom, winning kudos for his breezy personal style and ordering leaders to end the pomp, formality and waste that have alienated many among the public.
With his silky baritone, glamorous wife and daughter at Harvard, Xi cuts a very different figure from the staid, hyper-private leaders of the past. Even his posture, more like that of a slouchy college professor than a stiff party cadre, has won him plaudits.
Xi took the new informality a step further at a Tuesday meeting of the Politburo, ordering that arrangements for leaders' visits and the trappings of power be drastically pared back. Elaborate welcoming ceremonies will be eliminated and traffic disruptions avoided. Even red carpets will go.
It's still unclear whether the tonal change will boost transparency and bring meaningful administrative reforms that many say are needed to sustain China's economic and social development. The son of a communist elder, Xi has also gained a reputation as a nationalist hardliner with earlier comments blasting foreigners for criticising China's human rights record.
Yet his direct approach seems to be winning Xi fans among a public with whom he remains largely unfamiliar, despite his long career in public service and five years serving as the country's vice president.
"Xi has made a positive first impression, which is going to be a big help given the tough job he faces," said Edward Huang, a Beijing financier who recently returned to China after almost a decade in Britain.
As evidence, Huang cites Xi's upbeat, relaxed demeanour in his public appearances and his unwillingness to use communist buzzwords as a crutch. "It inspires confidence," Huang said.
Xi's approach seems to reflect a growing recognition of the need to connect better with a technology-savvy public increasingly willing to register their views about their leaders on the country's Twitter-like micro-blogging services that are closely watched by government monitors.
"China is more open, and its politics are becoming more open and that's putting Chinese leaders under a kind of pressure," said Peking University politics professor Wang Yong. "People want to know more about the life and work of the country's leaders and hope their work style will be more down-to-earth."
As vice president, Xi had been careful to adhere to party protocol that required him to remain low-key and deferential to President Hu Jintao. Now, as party leader and president-in-waiting, he seems eager to seize on the new opportunity to establish his personality and bona fides with the Chinese public while the focus is still on the new leadership.
Reaching out to the international community, Xi met Wednesday with foreign technical specialists and businesspeople based in China, remarking that amity between nations depends on "whether this deep friendship exists at the people-to-people level".
"In the past we suffered from the bad effects of a rigid and a closed-door policy. We have learned from that and realised that we cannot succeed in our development behind closed doors," Xi said in comments in front of the press.