Why it’s news that China’s president stood in the rain with his pants rolled up

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Image for article titled Why it’s news that China’s president stood in the rain with his pants rolled up
Image: Sina Weibo / Caijing

China’s new administration appears to be taking lessons in political imagery from the Americans.

Chinese media were awash with coverage of Xi Jinping’s visit (video in Chinese) to a port in Hebei province in central China over the weekend that was unexpectedly interrupted by rain. Undeterred, Xi rolled up his pant legs, held an umbrella over his head, and spoke with workers about logistics and how to boost transportation along China’s Yangtze River.

Just four months ago, Chinese media blasted US Treasury secretary Jack Lew for visiting Beijing and putting on airs of frugality, seen as an attempt to embarrass Chinese officials, who are sensitive to criticism of being remote elites. Now, Xi—who has promised to tackle government corruption and lavish spending by officials—is trying to counter that image in dress, plain speech, and a few gestures of openness rarely seen at the upper rungs of China’s communist party.

In contrast to the pomp and circumstance that’s normal for a visit by a top China official, Xi’s visit to Wuhan was a surprise. No banners were hung or any ceremony planned. “Not even a cup of tea or bottle of mineral water” was prepared for the leader’s visit, Wuhan’s evening news report said. When it began to pour, Xi ignored the “torrential rain” in order to keep speaking to workers.

The image is somewhat similar to a US presidential campaign moment last year when Obama gave a speech in the rain in Virginia:

Image: AP / Steve Helber

Reaction today seems mixed. On Sina Weibo, one blogger said (registration in Chinese required), “For a leader to look like this is to be close to the people….Even though holding your own umbrella isn’t something to boast about, this photo at least lets us see there’s been a change in Chinese officialdom. We can see a little bit of hope for China.”

Another, more cynically pointed to recent events in the country: the death of a watermelon vendor at the hands of police and an attempted bombing at the Beijing airport by a man who claims he was beaten by authorities. ”This series of terrible things,” the blogger wrote (registration required), ”makes me want to weep bitterly when I look at this photo.”