It was a nice but ordinary-looking office, with a polished wooden desk and shelves lined with books and photographs. But images of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s official sanctuary, released in stills of him delivering his New Year’s address, have titillated a Chinese public unfamiliar with such peeks into the lives of the nation’s cloistered leaders.
“This is the first time we’ve caught a glimpse of [Xi’s] office,” noted writer Hong Qiaojun on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging platform. “That’s why we are so curious.”
Immediately, the magnifying glasses came out and the framed photos were scrutinized. One is of Xi with his family, including his wheelchair-bound father, revolutionary elder Xi Zhongxun, who was purged during the worst days of Chairman Mao’s excesses, only to be rehabilitated years later and treated to a posthumous birthday extravaganza last year.
The second shows Xi with his mother, while another pairs him with his wife, glamorous People’s Liberation Army singer Peng Liyuan. Both Xi and his wife are wearing sunglasses (although any chance of looking cool is slightly undercut by Xi’s propensity, like so many other Chinese leaders, to secure his trousers high on his belly).
The fourth picture is of Xi, in shirtsleeves and necktie, pedaling a bike; perched on the back is his only daughter, Xi Mingze, who went on to attend Harvard. Yet another image captures sporty Xi playing a spot of soccer. The subject of the final picture is not clear.
While photographs of the White House and its occupants are commonplace, Zhongnanhai, China’s red-walled leadership compound in Beijing, has remained a secret preserve. As food-safety scandals have proliferated in China, news that Zhongnanhai has its own dedicated food supply only heightened the perceived gap between China’s rulers and masses.
Xi’s desk, as pictured in his New Year’s address, was largely clean, save a container of sharpened pencils, a sheaf of paper that looked like a calendar, a white phone and two rather impressive phones of scarlet hue. Journalist Richard McGregor, in his excellent exploration of China’s communist leadership called The Party, noted the existence of special “red machines” that connect to others through special four-digit numbers.
They sit, wrote McGregor, on the “desks of the heads of China’s fifty-odd biggest state companies,” and are also given to officials “with the rank of vice minister and above.”
Behind the seated President delivering his New Year’s homily was a Chinese flag and a picture of the mountainous crenellations of the Great Wall — about as anodyne a backdrop as one could imagine for a Chinese leader. The titles of the books on the shelves were not visible. Many appeared to be pristine sets of multiple volumes, the sort of tomes that often cover socialist history or philosophy.
Lost in much of the Weibo chatter about Xi’s office was the actual content of his New Year’s speech. Not much in the message, though, surprised. “In 2013, we made a comprehensive overall deployment of deepening reform, jointly drawing up a grand blueprint for future development,” Xi said. “In 2014, we will take new steps on the road to reform.”
An official push to humanize China’s leader appears to be under way, just as the nation’s propaganda bureau hails the success of Xi’s anticorruption campaign, which has targeted overly ostentatious government officials. In late December, Xi’s lunch at a local Beijing eatery of half a dozen steamed buns, pork liver and some veggies proved an Internet sensation. Does China’s ruler normally eat so frugally?
There was one item missing from the Chinese President’s office that caused online speculation about just how representative Xi is of his day and age. Where, in this modern era, was a computer in Xi’s workplace? Could it be that the leader of a nation with the most Internet users on earth — more than half a billion wired people — leads an offline existence?
— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing