For weeks, a mysterious microblog has been lifting a veil from around China’s new leader, Chinese Communist Party General Secretary and Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平), with candid snapshots from his travels that defy the typically stiff and staged images of the leadership presented in state media.
Ordinary Chinese, foreign reporters and even China’s own state media have speculated over who or what might be behind the blog — ostensibly registered to a female tech school graduate. Is Xi’s own team surreptitiously trying to humanize the leader in the guise of citizen journalism? Is this a crusader’s attempt to bring China’s leaders down a notch and send them a message?
It turns out it is the brainchild of a male college dropout and migrant worker, Zhang Hongming, who said in an interview that he is both a genuine fan of China’s new leader and intent on making him more accessible to the country’s people.
“It is just me. It’s completely an individual act,” said Zhang, who started the “Fan Club of Learning From Xi” on China’s Sina Weibo on Nov. 21 with a simple thought: Like other foreign leaders in these times, Chinese leaders should have an online following.
Zhang said he initially wanted to keep a low profile, but now wants to come forward to end the rampant speculation about his identity and intentions.
The account shares photographs gathered from citizen volunteers and local reports throughout the country of Xi on his visits out in the field — and the candid images aren’t always flattering. There are shots of him visiting a vegetable market, serving food to the elderly, looking sideways. One shows him napping in a van.
The microblog even tracked Xi’s recent trip to Gansu Province step by step, beating state media in reporting Xi’s activities. National broadcaster CCTV complained on its own microblog: “What happened? The Study Xi Fan Club is quicker and closer to him than us.”
The unexpected popularity of the microblog speaks to the Chinese public’s demand to humanize their typically aloof leaders.
“Our leaders used to appear to be out of reach for the masses. They always appeared to be mysterious. Now the public can feel closer to their leader with timely and transparent information,” Zhang said. “Xi is a national leader, but take his official title away, he’s an ordinary person.”
A native of Sichuan Province, Zhang said he dropped out of a technical college in 2008 when he realized he was not learning anything. He moved to the more prosperous provinces in China’s east and south, where he has worked many odd jobs, including delivery. He now helps produce wall decorations in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province.
Tech-savvy, Zhang said he often visits foreign sites and came to realize that many foreign leaders have online followings.
“We didn’t have one for Xi, and I felt like I could do that. After all, I am filled with expectations that our new leader will be affable,” said Zhang, who was contacted through the password-protected private message function on his Weibo account that only he could reasonably have access to.
During a later video chat, he showed his government-issued ID card to verify his identity.
Zhang said he initially registered the account as the Fan Club of General Secretary Xi, but found he had difficulty posting to it. Then he changed it to “the Fan Club of Learning from Xi,” in a wordplay on Xi’s name, which also means “studying” in Chinese.