Xi takes a walk amid the smog - and the mood lifts

Chinese President Xi Jinping is photographed visiting Nanluoguxiang, a popular street in Beijing.

CHINA - The skies might have been smoggy and grey, but those who happened to be at Nanluoguxiang, the Chinese capital's pedestrian street famous among tourists, had their mood brightened by a special visitor on Tuesday.

Chinese President Xi Jinping was photographed early on Tuesday walking along Nanluoguxiang's Yu'er Hutong, barely two months after his last surprise appearance turned a steamed bun restaurant into Beijing's hottest tourist magnet.

While Mr Xi's latest public outing is not his first since taking power in November 2012, experts say there is special significance this time as it takes place amid heavy smog that has plagued Beijing over the past week.

Renmin University political analyst Zhang Ming said Mr Xi has scored well with the people, by not donning a mask on Tuesday despite hazardous smog that has peaked at over 16 times internationally accepted safe standards.

"It makes the people feel good that the President is breathing the same polluted air as them... This is more significant than simply eating buns," he added.

Last December, Mr Xi visited the Qing Feng dumpling restaurant chain in western Beijing, carrying his tray and paying for the 21 yuan (S$4.40) meal himself.

Added Professor Zhan Jiang of Beijing Foreign Studies University: "In the light of the anti-corruption crackdown, this allows him to keep connected to the people and to continue receiving public support."

Accompanied by Beijing party boss Guo Jinlong and city mayor Wang Anshun, Mr Xi was seen in an Internet video clip responding warmly to residents and passers- by who applauded wildly and enthusiastically called out "Zhuxi Hao", or "Hello Chairman". He greeted them and shook hands.

Mr Xi, who seemed relaxed and did not have a heavy security detail, was also seen chatting with residents and asking about life in the neighbourhood. Local media reports said he paid surprise visits to two households and even asked residents in one if they wanted a photograph with him.

China's online platforms exploded with videos and pictures of his visit.

Netizens were effusive in their praise. Twitter-like Sina Weibo user "xiexiaohu" said the President's visit showed he was "close to the people". "I was very excited to see him. This generation of leaders helps commoners feel more assured," he added.

The official Weibo account of the Beijing News daily also exclaimed: "Breathing the same air, sharing a common fate!"

But while Mr Xi's public relations campaign has received wide support, it might not be sufficient in the long run, say analysts.

"Ultimately, the people want the government to follow through on actual policies to improve their lives," Prof Zhang said.


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