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 take a knife to 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 25-member Politburo, ordering that arrangements for leaders' visits and the trappings of power be drastically pared back. Elaborate welcoming ceremonies will be eliminated, traffic disruptions avoided, and staid, often worthless reporting on the doings of the leadership dispensed with. Even red carpets are to go.
And according to Hong Kong media that is what happened on Xi's first trip outside Beijing since he took over as party leader. When Xi arrived in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen on Friday there were no welcome banners, and the red carpet was gone when he laid a wreath to the statute of the former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping on Saturday, according to footage by Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television.
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 criticizing 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 demeanor 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 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 realized that we cannot succeed in our development behind closed doors," Xi said in comments in front of the press.
One participant, Shanghai-based British biologist David Waxman, said Xi appeared comfortable and in control, but also modest, asking about their work, taking notes, and responding to suggestions.
"I have to say, he came across as very confident," Waxman told The Associated Press.
Xi's friendly demeanor could be a plus for China at a time when the outside world is increasingly apprehensive about its rising military, economic, and political might.
"There's a strong desire among Chinese leaders to appear knowledgeable, soothing and willing to listen in front of foreigners," said Joseph Cheng, a Chinese politics expert at Hong Kong's City University.
Xi, 59, displayed his personal flair last week when talking about the need for struggle and patriotism during a visit to a museum exhibit dedicated to China's fight against foreign domination over the past century and a half.
Dressed in a regulation-issue wind breaker and open-necked shirt, Xi took in the exhibits one by one and listened attentively to the guide's explanations, while the other six members of the all-powerful Politburo standing committee followed dutifully behind.
Xi quoted classical poets as well as communist China's founder, Mao Zedong, in comments carried verbatim and at length on state television — another sign of his new-found seniority. Since Chinese leaders almost never give news conferences, such appearances are about the closest most Chinese will come to seeing Xi speak extemporaneously.
Museum visits are a time-honored ritual for communist leaders, but, coming so soon after his elevation to party secretary, Xi's visit seemed especially primed to show him as a man of the people. It also didn't hurt that Xi spoke standard Mandarin Chinese in a velvety baritone without any discernible regional accent — a break from previous leaders whose provincial twangs sometimes led to mockery or incomprehension.
Xi had made graft-busting a signature issue of his vice presidential years, and there are already signs he may be willing to act on those vows. Chinese media reported this week that a deputy party secretary of Sichuan province, Li Chuncheng, has been placed under investigation, less than one month after he was named an alternate to the party's Central Committee.
The party's No. 2 official, premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang, has also sought to show a human touch, meeting with social workers and HIV-infected people on World AIDS Day, while the newly named head of the party's disciplinary body, Wang Qishan, upended usual procedure during a weekend meeting with scholars, telling them to dispatch with their presentations and go straight into discussions.
In addition to being a decade or more younger than the outgoing leaders, Xi and Li also reflect a trend toward a background in the more people-centric fields of economics and law rather than the engineering and natural sciences studied by the previous generation.
Xi's family life furthers that contrast. His wife, Peng Liyuan, is an army general better known as a crooner of folk songs who has more recently appeared as a United Nations World Health Organization goodwill ambassador for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.
Yet, despite reaching out to foreigners and peddling a softer tone, Xi has been careful to burnish his nationalist credentials as head of the Central Military Commission overseeing the armed forces, a pose that plays much better at home than abroad. Prior to meeting the foreign experts Wednesday, Xi greeted officers from China's formidable missile corps, praising them as "the pillar of China's great nation status."
Though China's system remains authoritarian, popular support is important because no one is quite clear how to navigate the challenges China is facing, from the rampant corruption that has alienated many Chinese from their leaders to the slowing economy and rising numbers of protests over pollution, graft, and social inequality. Liberal scholars and even many in the government say bold steps are needed to boost transparency and accountability, but there's little willingness to take steps that might weaken the communists' hold on power.
"Chinese leaders might not be elected, but they certainly want to appear close to the people. It's a form of persuasion that better helps sell government policies," said City University's Cheng.