“The most arduous and heavy task facing China in completing the building of a moderately prosperous society is in rural areas, especially poverty-stricken regions,” Xi said during his visit to Luotuowan, which is 289.7km from Beijing.
Tang, at least, seemed convinced that Xi’s visit would somehow drastically improve their lives.
“We have to believe something good will come of this,” Tang said. “Otherwise, why would the party secretary have come all the way here?”
Asked what the government had done before Xi’s visit, he paused and shook his head.
“Not much,” he said.
Indeed, given China’s rampant corruption, another big question surrounding the anti-poverty campaign, announced a few days after Xi’s visit, is how much of the additional US$40 million that provincial authorities will funnel to Luotuowan and other villages in the surrounding county of Fuping next year will actually reach those in need.
While Chinese leaders certainly inhabit a cosseted world, tradition — and the tenets of good public relations — dictate that they occasionally mingle with the masses. According to popular lore, emperors would remove their dragon robes and venture out of the Forbidden City to see how their subjects were faring.
Mao’s choreographed rural tours were less successful, in part because the officials who arranged them often shielded him from peasant suffering, most notably during a famine, the result of an ill-conceived industrialization push, that began in the late 1950s and killed tens of millions.
“Every leader has their own way of doing it, but these days, they are surrounded by TV cameras,” said Lei Yi (雷頤), a historian at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), who is affectionately known as Grandpa Wen, played well to the cameras as he consoled victims of natural disasters or donned an apron to stuff dumplings alongside ordinary Chinese during the Lunar New Year holiday.
In contrast, Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), who is scheduled to leave office in March, often comes off as wooden. It did not help that some of his encounters were poorly planned or clumsily staged. Two years ago, after he sought to spotlight the nation’s low-income housing program by visiting the apartment of a beneficiary, Internet sleuths accused the woman of living elsewhere and renting out the apartment for a US$300 monthly profit.
Despite her tearful denials to the state news media, the episode proved to be a public-relations debacle for Hu.
Xi, who is known as a “princeling” because of his pedigree as the son of a revolutionary hero, often displays a natural ease in the company of farmers and factory workers. Recently, party propagandists have worked hard to polish his image as a “secretary of the people.”
In a lengthy profile published last month, Xinhua news agency lingered on his years as a “sent-down youth” during the Cultural Revolution, when he lived in exile among the cave-dwelling inhabitants of a village in Shaanxi Province.
Once he became inured to the fleas and the arduous labor Xi helped transform the villagers’ lives by organizing a cooperative for blacksmiths and building a methane collection tank Xinhua said.
“He arrived in the village as a slightly lost teenager and left as a 22-year-old man determined to do something for the people,” Xinhua said.