Chinese President Xi's Steamed Buns Still Roiling Weibo

User Generated, Censor Chosen Keywords on Weibo is a monthly feature produced by China Digital Times for The WorldPost.

Comfort food--with the president? Patrons of one branch of the Qingfeng Steamed Bun Shop chain were treated to a surprise visit from Xi Jinping on December 28. “Four Seas Micro Broadcast” (四海微传播) spread the news on Weibo: “Daddy Xi stood in line to buy steamed buns. He also paid, carried the tray, and picked out his steamed buns all himself. Now Qingfeng can make a President Xi combo.”

While the restaurant management promised not to “use his visit as a stunt to make money,” Xi’s patronage has had that effect. Over 400 customers ordered the “Uncle Xi combo” the next day: six pork buns, liver soup, and a bowl of mustard greens. Business increased 35% across Qingfeng’s 180 Beijing locations in the first weeks of the new year; sales were high over the busy Spring Festival holiday, and as of February 5, sales at the location Xi visited were almost five times what they were the same time last year.

Plenty of Chinese Internet users see Xi’s stealth lunch as a sign of his closeness to the people. Some of these “netizens” went so far as to read symbolically into his lunch: the mustard greens, or jiecai, could be a warning to “beware of wealth,” an allusion to Xi’s austerity measures to counteract banqueting and bribery among officials. But the censors have reined in alternate interpretations of the Uncle Xi combo. Keyword combinations that criticize Xi’s “political show” have been blocked from Weibo search results since January 14:

  • Xi+put on a show (习+作秀)
  • Xi+speculate (习+炒作)
  • Xi+put on an act (习+演戏)
  • Xi+big move (习+大动作)
  • Xi+new administration (习+新政)

A seemingly unrelated term has also been blocked: wishy-washy (不伦不类). The Canadian Chinese website published a reflection on Xi Jinping’s “show of closeness to the people” (亲民秀) and the difficulties he faces both domestically and abroad. “China’s diplomacy is conducted with the clarity of mud–it’s wishy-washy” (中国外交搞得一团浆 糊,不伦不类), writes “sunyiwen.”

In January, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that petitioners capitalized on the Qingfeng craze to air their grievances. In a tradition that has survived from China’s imperial times, petitioners stymied in their efforts to go through official local channels will head straight to Beijing to seek redress for local problems. Petitioners from the southern city of Hangzhou concerned about forced demolition of their homes unfurled a banner that proclaimed “President Xi, I want to eat steamed buns,” according to RFA.

In one censored weibo, captured by the project FreeWeibo, LiangHongxing (梁鸿兴) asks, “Is this a Qingfeng Steamed Bun Shop or the Kaifeng Court? Steamed buns are taking on the role of Lord Bao.” Bao Zheng (包拯), whose name shares a character with “steamed bun” (包子), was a ninth-century mandarin known for championing petitioners’ causes.

Weibo has relied on keyword blocking to tamp down politically sensitive conversation, much more convenient than manually deleting offending posts. Over the past few months, however, it appears that Weibo has developed more sophisticated censorship techniques. Posts may be deleted or kept from view, only to reappear when an issue has blown over. A search for Xi+”I want to eat steamed buns” (习 我想吃包子) returned zero results on February 14. Unlike Weibo’s usual protocol for blocked search results, there was no message warning that “relevant laws and regulations” required that results be withheld. By February 17, there were 213 results for the same query, including posts about the Hangzhou petitioners. But several hundred weibo pale next to the tens of millions of posts that go up every day.

Xi’s lunch echoes the first Weibo appearance of U.S. ambassador to China Gary Locke. In the summer of 2011, tech CEO Tang Chaohui spotted Ambassador Locke ordering at the Seattle airport Starbucks, a backpack slung over his shoulder and his daughter by his side. Tang snapped a photo and posted it to Weibo, where it went viral. Users fawned over the new ambassador's lack of entitlement, in contrast to the extravagance of Chinese officialdom. Soon after Locke’s arrival in Beijing, Vice President Joe Biden shared a meal with the ambassador at a simple lunch spot, another photo opportunity. But it was the candid Starbucks sighting that really enamored Chinese netizens of Locke.

The official Chinese press cautioned that Locke’s humbleness was deceiving, but the power of the everyman image was clearly not lost on Xi. The central government has steered Xi’s story, though, ensuring that the authenticity of the president’s patronage of Qingfeng was not undermined. In a leaked propaganda directive, the State Council Information Office instructed websites to remove the article “Who Is This ‘Four Seas Micro Broadcast’ Behind Xi Jinping’s Steamed Buns?” The article notes that the first weibo about Xi’s visit was posted about an hour after Xi entered Qingfeng, and that Four Seas Micro Broadcast’s is particularly fond of reposting weibo from official media. The implication is that Xi’s lunch was staged.

Last April, the Hong Kong based, state-sponsored newspaper Ta Kung Pao reported an encounter between a Beijing cabby and the president of the world’s second-largest economy. As his customer climbed in the cab, the driver told him he looked a lot like Xi Jinping. “You are the first one to ever recognize me,” the president replied. Xinhua News Agency picked up the story, and Weibo users ran with it. But days later, Ta Kung Pao issued an apology. The story was a fake. After that debacle, an orchestrated lunchtime photo-op would not be surprising.

You can browse over 2,000 sensitive words, collected by China Digital Times since 2011, on our bilingual Google spreadsheet.