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In early November, China’s most powerful man, Xi Jinping, stepped into a rustic farmhouse while on an inspection tour in far-flung Hunan province. The occupants’ sole electrical appliance, a fluorescent light bulb, burned overhead. Shi Pazhuan, the family matriarch, was confused. “What should I call you?” she asked — in Chinese, a cordial way of asking who he was.

Xi shrugged off the unintended slight. He asked for the woman’s age, heard that she was 64, and grasped her hand. “You are an elder sister to me,” he said. State media immediately reported the encounter — it seemed perfectly to capture the 60-year-old Chinese president’s down-to-earth leadership style, his warm personality and his affection for the rural poor.

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