At noon on Saturday, the Qingfeng dumpling shop, a roadside restaurant chain in old Beijing famed for its succulent steamed buns, received a surprise visitor.
Ordering six pork buns, fried liver and a plate of mustard leaves for a grand sum of 21 Yuan (Rs. 214), was none other than the most powerful man in China.
Communist Party (CPC) General Secretary and President Xi Jinping arrived at the restaurant unannounced – and, unusually for a Chinese leader, without a full security entourage.
He stood in line with the other patrons as he waited to order, mingled with the locals as he ate his meal, and paid for his lunch himself as amazed bystanders clicked away on their smartphones.
As the photographs spread like wildfire on Chinese social media websites, Mr. Xi appeared to have scored a public relations victory: in a country where there is wide resentment at the extravagant lives led by the Communist Party’s high leaders, often epitomised by ostentatious official banquets in grand hotels where 21 Yuan wouldn’t purchase a glass of water, the top leader breaking the mould was seen as a welcome change.
“Xi Jinping buys a 21 Yuan meal” ran a headline on the website of the Beijing News.
Most of the comments on Twitter-like microblogs were positive – even if some saw the meal as a carefully choreographed public relations exercise – with many welcoming leaders who led less cloistered lives and were more in touch with the people.
China’s top leaders rarely venture beyond the high walls of Zhongnanhai – the central leadership compound – unless on official visits during which they are usually accompanied by large delegations and heavy security.
Managers at the restaurant said Mr. Xi was not accompanied by his full security entourage, and that the restaurant was not closed for his visit and continued to serve other customers. The restaurant also said it had not been told before hand of Mr. Xi’s visit.
This isn’t the first instance of Mr. Xi, who took over as Party chief in November 2012 and as President in March this year, adopting a leadership style far different from that of his more rigid predecessor, Hu Jintao.
Earlier this year, Chinese media were abuzz with reports that Mr. Xi had taken a taxi ride through Beijing’s streets, unaccompanied by his security entourage. The story, first reported by a Hong Kong newspaper known to have Party ties, was subsequently denied.
In recent months, Mr. Xi has certainly attempted to carve out the image of a populist, launching a high-profile corruption crackdown and, more recently, putting in place “a mass line” campaign aimed at bringing out of touch Party cadres closer to the people.
While photographs of Mr. Xi’s unexpected Saturday lunch were shared by the State-run Xinhua news agency, official broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) did not mention the event during its daily news broadcast.
The State broadcaster did report that Mr. Xi had toured Beijing on Saturday, visiting a power plant in the morning and a home for retirees in the afternoon, leaving unsaid the unexpected stopover in between.