Simple steamed bun helps cast Xi Jinping as a man of the people
Beijing Letter: The Chinese leader’s choice of workers’ food scores well with the ‘plain people of Beijing’
A group of young women on a rail training programme in Beijing queue outside the Qingfeng Steamed Bun Shop, visited by Chinese president Xi Jinping in recent weeks. Photograph: Clifford Coonan
Cooks at the Qingfeng Steamed Bun Shop in west Beijing can’t make the pork and scallion baozi (buns) fast enough since Xi Jinping visited for some traditional workers’ food and ate it among the workers.
The Chinese president’s visit late last month went down a treat, while web commentators were enthusiastic in their praise for Xi’s easy populism, after he left the government headquarters in nearby Zhongnanhai and ordered six steamed buns filled with pork and scallions, a bowl of stewed pig liver and a plate of green vegetables.
The bill came to 21 yuan, about €2.50, and he sat and scoffed it at one of the restaurant tables, just like any other working Joe.
While Xi is known as “President Xi” abroad, in China he is known as “Chairman Xi”, in the same way as the country’s late founding father Mao Zedong is known as “chairman Mao”.
The Chinese government is keen for its leaders to have the president title abroad, as it sounds, well, more presidential.
But in Qingfeng, it’s all about the chairman.
“Since Chairman Xi came here, the restaurant has had queues like this every day. We didn’t know the chairman was coming beforehand. We only recognised him when he was at the window picking up his food because he also waited in the line,” says a waitress.
It sounds like a “mom and pop” kind of place
but Qingfeng is actually a state-owned chain and we are told we have to go through headquarters if we want to interview other staff members.
It’s hard not to think of Flann O’Brien’s “Plain People of Ireland” when you see pretty much every customer in the place eating the same dishes Xi ordered during his visit.
Xi is building up a reputation as a more approachable kind of leader, a man of the people – something people in Ireland got a taste of when they saw how he handled a hurley in Croke Park during his visit.
There were rumours last year that Xi even took a taxi to ask the driver what was really going on in Beijing, although that may have been a hoax. While his predecessor Hu Jintao was seen as a technocrat, Xi’s public profile is high.
Xi gave a new year’s message on state television, from his office, with family photographs on display behind him. There is clearly a different brand of leadership at work.
Since he was formally installed at the National People’s Congress last March, he has been cementing his position at the top of the Communist Party and working on policy behind closed doors at the party plenum in
November. But since revealing his reform plans , he has been much more visible, suggesting that his authority at the helm of the party, the state and the military is robust.
Wei Shuyi, a student at the University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, ordered stewed liver, Chinese mustard and steamed buns, just like the chairman.
“They have sold out of all the pork and scallion baozi, so we ordered shrimp buns instead. Some people bought more than six kilos of baozi.
“We came here especially, all the way from Wangjing. It took about an hour to get here. We waited an hour to order,” says Wei.
He and his classmate Chen Xinyu have a test coming up in “Mao Zedong theory” – in Chinese universities, political education is a compulsory component of the curriculum.
“We came here to help us get lucky with the test. We have one of these restaurants near the school, but we wanted to come here to experience the atmosphere.”
Chen Xinyu says there are too many people and it took too long to get served. “But everybody is very enthusiastic. We chatted with people while we were waiting, so I felt the time went by quite fast. We were very happy.”
Symbolism of visit
The symbolism of the visit is clear. It was plain, cheap food – none of the expensive abalone favoured by corrupt government officials, a group despised by the populace which Xi has taken aim at with his anti-graft campaign.
Xi is careful to keep his distance from Mao’s legacy – the tribulations of the ideological reign of terror during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) make it necessary to recognise Mao’s achievements while distancing oneself from his controversial policies and steering clear of personality cults.
But going to a restaurant like this and ordering simple food to illustrate closeness to the people is also the kind of thing that Mao might have done.
A young woman surnamed Liu, from the railway bureau in Shijiazhuang in Hebei province, is on a one-month training programme in Beijing, and she has come with five friends to order what the chairman had ordered.
They are very excited to eat where the chairman ate, and will order the exact same as he did – one of her friends says she doesn’t even like liver but will eat it nonetheless.
“Chairman Xi is very close to the people. We don’t feel any distance, I like him very much. It’s not just eating steamed buns shows his closeness, he’s done other things too. And he also looks very people-friendly,” she says.