Out to lunch

Xi Jinping displays common touch as he dines on buns


The Qingfeng restaurant: now a tourist attraction

One of the Hong Kong public’s fondest memories of Chris Patten – the final British governor before the territory returned to Chinese rule – is when the man known locally as ‘fei pang’ (or Fatty Patten), tucked into a pastry.

Forget his last-minute battle to upgrade their political rights. Most Hongkongers were most endeared when Patten visited a simple local bakery and ate egg tarts with the masses.

President Obama seems to have taken a leaf from Patten’s culinary playbook, making a surprise visit himself to Ray’s Burger, a hamburger joint in Arlington, Virginia, for an impromptu lunch in 2009.

A year later, Obama was back, bonding with his then-counterpart from Russia, Dmitri Medvedev, over more burgers and fries at Ray’s.

And last week a small dumpling restaurant in Beijing got its own presidential boost when Xi Jinping turned up unannounced to order a plate of steamed buns.

Xinhua reports that Xi and several of his associates arrived at the Qingfeng restaurant in a residential area of Beijing. He then lined up with the busy lunchtime crowd and ordered six steamed buns filled with pork and spring onions, a bowl of stir-fried pig liver and a plate of vegetables.

The tab was Rmb21 ($3.50), which he paid himself.

“Everyone was very excited,” He Yuanli, the restaurant manager told Xinhua. “He was smiling the entire time.”

Carrying his own tray to one of the tables, Xi was soon surrounded by astonished customers. The next day, the People’s Daily ran a photo of him with his arm around a boy’s shoulders, explaining gravely that food safety was a key concern for his government.

Can we expect to see more days out for Xi in months ahead, as he doubles down on his dumpling lunches? Political commentators said that while his visit appeared to be unplanned, photos released by state media suggest that the drop-by was very deliberate, intending to portray Xi as in touch with ordinary people and their concerns.

“Of course it’s more like a show, but people are still eager to see it happen in China,” Fang Ledi said on his blog. “The symbolic meaning of this kind of action is to show great progress in Chinese politics.”

Indeed, Xi’s baozi moment (it means ‘steamed buns’) was soon sizzling through the weibo world. There were lots of compliments for his down-to-earth manner. “I can’t believe my eyes: President Xi lined up, paid his own bill and fetched his own food,” one netizen wrote. “This is the image of a leader who cares about his people. Now there is hope for the Party; there is hope for Chinese people; and there is hope for the nation,” another believed.

It’s an impressive political dividend, and at the cost of just a couple of bucks. Its impact was all the greater precisely because Chinese leaders are normally remote figures.

But Xi’s lunchtime adventure also resonates with his government’s wider message on reform too.

“His surprise appearance may be a small matter but the public’s reaction was huge. That’s because people are hopeful. They hope that changes are finally taking place in the government and the Party. It might seem a minor thing, but it indicates the social transition in China is taking place. The image of Xi at the restaurant could be the cover image of a new era,” China Economic Net hoped.

The menu choice has also been prompting discussion from netizens keen to decipher hidden meaning behind the food order. One theory is that the name of the steamed bun shop, which means “celebrating the harvest”, also sounds like the Chinese term for “clear wind”, evoking the image of an honest official who never takes bribes. Of course, Xi has spearheaded an anti-corruption drive since he took office.

A similar theory is that his choice of stir-fried pig liver means that the most rapacious officials can expect to be “fried” too, a term which can mean being fired in Chinese.

More of a stretch: others reckoned that the translucent filling of Xi’s steamed buns signifies greater transparency in his government in future.

Regardless of the reasoning behind his order, the ‘Xi combo’ has become hugely popular at the dumpling chain. The Beijing Morning Post reports that the restaurant has even purchased additional steamers to churn out more of Xi’s preferred fare. The restaurant company says it has seen a surge of franchise applications to open new outlets too.

But Xi’s visit hasn’t proved to be an unvarnished positive for the eatery. News of the celebrity endorsement has also brought some unwanted notoriety to the venue, following the arrival of a number of protesters and petitioners.

Late last week a number of unhappy individuals took to camping outside the eatery with banners accusing officials in their neighbourhoods of graft. They then took pictures of their demonstration and uploaded them to the internet, where wags were soon calling the restaurant Beijing’s newest “letters and calls” bureau, the agency where citizens can allege malpractice by local bureaucrats.

The photos were quickly removed online.

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