Dressed in a regulation-issue wind breaker and open-necked shirt, Xi took in the exhibits one by one and listened attentively to the guide’s explanations, while the other six members of the all-powerful Politburo standing committee followed dutifully behind.
Xi quoted classical poets as well as communist China’s founder, Mao Zedong, in comments carried verbatim and at length on state television — another sign of his new-found seniority. Since Chinese leaders almost never give news conferences, such appearances are about the closest most Chinese will come to seeing Xi speak extemporaneously.
Museum visits are a time-honored ritual for communist leaders, but, coming so soon after his elevation to party secretary, Xi’s visit seemed especially primed to show him as a man of the people. It also didn’t hurt that Xi spoke standard Mandarin Chinese in a velvety baritone without any discernible regional accent — a break from previous leaders whose provincial twangs sometimes led to mockery or incomprehension.
Xi had made graft-busting a signature issue of his vice presidential years, and there are already signs he may be willing to act on those vows. Chinese media reported this week that a deputy party secretary of Sichuan province, Li Chuncheng, has been placed under investigation, less than one month after he was named an alternate to the party’s Central Committee.
The party’s No. 2 official, premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang, has also sought to show a human touch, meeting with social workers and HIV-infected people on World AIDS Day, while the newly named head of the party’s disciplinary body, Wang Qishan, upended usual procedure during a weekend meeting with scholars, telling them to dispatch with their presentations and go straight into discussions.
In addition to being a decade or more younger than the outgoing leaders, Xi and Li also reflect a trend toward a background in the more people-centric fields of economics and law rather than the engineering and natural sciences studied by the previous generation.
Xi’s family life furthers that contrast. His wife, Peng Liyuan, is an army general better known as a crooner of folk songs who has more recently appeared as a United Nations World Health Organization goodwill ambassador for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.
Yet, despite reaching out to foreigners and peddling a softer tone, Xi has been careful to burnish his nationalist credentials as head of the Central Military Commission overseeing the armed forces, a pose that plays much better at home than abroad. Prior to meeting the foreign experts Wednesday, Xi greeted officers from China’s formidable missile corps, praising them as ‘‘the pillar of China’s great nation status.’’
Though China’s system remains authoritarian, popular support is important because no one is quite clear how to navigate the challenges China is facing, from the rampant corruption that has alienated many Chinese from their leaders to the slowing economy and rising numbers of protests over pollution, graft, and social inequality. Liberal scholars and even many in the government say bold steps are needed to boost transparency and accountability, but there’s little willingness to take steps that might weaken the communists’ hold on power.
‘‘Chinese leaders might not be elected, but they certainly want to appear close to the people. It’s a form of persuasion that better helps sell government policies,’’ said City University’s Cheng.