• The Washington Post


When Communist Party leader Xi Jinping made his first official trip outside the capital recently, to the prosperous southern province of Guangdong, his every movement was fawningly chronicled by a mysterious new microblog that seemed always one step — and many days — ahead of the official media.

The microblog, called the “Learning from Xi Fan Club,” accurately reported his planned visits to Guangzhou, Shenzhen and other southern cities well before the news was run on state-run CCTV television, and days before the official Xinhua news agency, which waited to make any mention of Xi’s trip until it was complete.

The fan site posted rare early photographs of Xi and his family members — highly unusual in China, where the private lives of officials remain shrouded in secrecy. There are references to Xi’s mottos and favorite sports, and the site even refers to the Communist Party’s top leader by an affectionate nickname, “Pingping.”

The site’s founder, who declined to give his true identity, claimed that he is simply an ordinary “grassroots person” and not a member of Xi’s publicity or media team. “I’m a fan of the party secretary,” he said. “I like him and support him.”

But many inside China who study the media are not convinced the site is the work of real “fans,” saying it appears more like part of a well-oiled propaganda effort.

With its professional style and use of standard journalism techniques, “it is definitely not from some ordinary grassroots-level netizen,” said Zhang Zhian, an expert with new media from Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-sen University. He guessed the fan club, if not really the work of an ordinary follower, was either the work of the Party Central Committee’s General Office, or reporters from Xinhua.

Whatever its origin, the microblog seems the most obvious example yet of how Xi and his handlers, just one month into the top job, are deftly trying to cultivate an image of a new, more accessible leader — a Chinese Everyman who eschews unnecessary pomp, travels in a van without a huge entourage, crosses the street only at designated intersections and enjoys common pursuits, such as playing soccer.

The online Xi fan club also shows how he and China’s other top leaders, newly elevated at the Party Congress that ended Nov. 14, seem more than their predecessors to understand the enormous power of the Internet, and particularly the hugely popular microblogging sites collectively known as “weibo.”

In just three years, such sites have empowered ordinary Chinese with a voice and a new tool for holding corrupt local officials to account.

Rather than simply fighting weibo or trying to repress the movement, China’s new leaders are also joining it and trying to shape it to their own ends.

“Admittedly, this is still the propaganda,” Zhang, the new media expert, said. But he called it “a much cleverer way, humanized and more respectful of journalistic values.” As Zhang put it, the government is “bridging the gap with the Western world and learning from it, becoming more like the U.S.”

As of the end of October, there were 60,000 government-registered weibo accounts, according to a report by Sina Weibo and the Public Opinion Monitoring Office of People’s Daily. There were 20 official accounts of central government ministries, and 22 accounts held by provincial-level governments. Many local police branches also use their own weibo accounts.

“The party and the government have gained back the Internet microphone to a large degree,” wrote the influential Guangdong-based newspaper Southern Weekly, known for its independent voice and liberal views. “And they’ve gained the dominant right of speech on breaking news and sensitive topics.”

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