China's president Xi Jinping mobbed in surprise public outing

Chinese President Xi Jinping is photographed visiting Nanluoguxiang, a popular street in Beijing, on Feb 25, 2014

BEIJING - Chinese President Xi Jinping shocked locals by visiting courtyard homes and chatting with pedestrians near a popular shopping street on Tuesday, drawing praise from social media users for his unusual public diplomacy.

Unscripted interactions between politicians and the public are uncommon in a country where even leaders' birthdays or family backgrounds are often closely held secrets.

A shaky video of Mr Xi's visit posted online shows locals applauding him as he nears. He then stops to ask residents how long they have lived in the neighbourhood before ambling away.

Photos posted online by Chinese media show Mr Xi mobbed by people holding cameras and cell phones as he stands in a narrow alley grinning.

The central Beijing shopping street, frequented by young Chinese and tourists alike, is lined with stands selling popular street snacks like octopus balls and red bean cakes, as well as clothing and souvenir stores.

Mr Xi's few forays into ordinary public settings have attracted widespread praise from the Chinese public.

Mr Xi shocked patrons of a steamed bun eatery in December when he paid for his own food, carried his own tray and happily chatted with customers.

Choking smog has been at a high for the past few days in Beijing, and many netizens expressed approval that the president was exposing himself to the same toxic air as everyone else without even donning a mask.

"The Party must always join hands with the people," one user wrote in a widely shared posting. "Breathe the same air and share the same fate."