A cartoon published to Chinese state media sites, showing president Xi Jinping’s hectic schedule in his first months in office, has prompted an online discussion about efforts to promote a kinder image for the new leader.
The online sketch Where Has Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Time Gone? was released this week by qianlong.com, which has links to the Beijing government. It shows a friendly caricature of Xi wearing a gray jacket and blue trousers, and details the amount of time he has spent traveling China and the world in his role as supreme leader of the world’s biggest emerging power.
To a Western audience, the cartoon looks unremarkable, the kind of piece you would see in civics class in any U.S. high school. But in China, ever since the cult of personality around Chairman Mao Zedong led to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, the leadership has traditionally been a impenetrable black box and the president a faceless technocrat who keeps his own personality out of the news.
The cartoon’s producer, Yang Mingxing, told Beijing News that her team was inspired to make the cartoon by comments Xi made at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
He told Russian media that he devoted most of his time to work, and quoted a song, “Where Has Time Gone?,” which was performed at the Chinese New Year gala.
Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, spent 10 years as leader but left without anyone knowing much about him at all, so the cartoon is remarkably open about President Xi’s love of sports, reading and martial arts, and tells of Xi’s tireless efforts to combat corruption, introduce reform and boost cultural “soft power.”
The cartoon is the latest example of Xi’s easy populism.
As vice president in 2012, Xi coordinated the expansion of the quota of Hollywood films allowed into China to 34. During that process we learned that Xi likes the movie Saving Private Ryan, but other than that, details of the leader’s interests were thin.
In recent weeks, he made a highly publicized visit to the Qingfeng Steamed Bun Shop in Beijing where he ate some pork and scallion baozi (buns) with some workers. Xi wants to build a reputation as a more approachable kind of leader, a man of the people.
A web commentator called Lin Qinren wrote on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo: “This time he is not eating the baozi. How’s the cartoon of Chairman Xi? Isn’t it very lovely, lively, handsome and cute?”
Another webizen named Wen min si wu xie said: “The cartoon image makes him more people-friendly and confident.”
Meanwhile, Yu yun feixiang wrote: “Is it made by the government? All the information seems very powerful in the video. It is probably made by the propaganda ministry to change the previously stiff style of publicity. They are trying to explain China’s political system using a more acceptable way for the public and a way of connecting to the international world.”
There were rumors last year that Xi took a taxi to ask the driver what was really going on in Beijing, although that may have been a hoax.
Xi also gave a new year’s message on state television from his office, with family photographs on display behind him.
In October, a professionally produced video cartoon, How to Make Leaders, which satirized the American and British election systems and showed how China’s six most important leaders rose from grassroots politics to the apogee of power in the country, went viral in China.
Even gentle satire of the government is not tolerated in China, but the earlier cartoon had such a positive spin on the process of appointing China’s leaders that many commentators suspected it was a clever piece of propaganda in disguise.
Appointed as head of the ruling Communist Party in November 2012, Xi was appointed president at the National People’s Congress in March last year. Since that time he has spent 39 days on five trips overseas, covering 14 countries and five continents.
The cartoon doesn’t broach ongoing crackdown on all forms of dissent and tightening control of the Internet.