What it means when President Xi buys his bun and eats it too

Dumpling shop worker: "The president asked me which is the best"

"Man buys bun" is a headline unlikely to sell many newspapers. Even "President buys bun" wouldn't stop the presses in most countries. For China, though, it's different, and Xi Jinping's weekend visit to a popular Beijing dumpling shop, where he bought and paid for his own pork and onion bun, has unleashed a media storm.

The need to appear normal is of course usually the obsession of democratically-elected politicians. Autocrats, on the other hand, tend to emphasise their elevation above, rather than closeness to the masses, and China's communist rulers, like the members of the country's imperial court before them, have been no different.

Mr Xi is trying to change all that. His bun-eating mission, however pre-planned, is in line with the tone he has set during his first year in office, demanding that public officials curb displays of extravagance and entitlement.

Corruption and perceived aloofness from ordinary lives, he has warned, pose a grave threat to the future of the Communist Party.

An order of food similar to what Chinese President Xi Jinping ate a day before is seen on a table after it was ordered by tourists from Guangdong province at the Qing-Feng Steamed Dumpling Shop in Beijing, China, 29 December 2013 Mr Xi ordered a pork and onion bun at a dumpling shop in Beijing, China
Public opinion

A couple of years ago, a photograph of the then US ambassador in Beijing buying his own coffee in Starbucks went viral in China. "Even less imposing than a village chief," was one comment, as thousands more pondered the comparison with the lifestyles of their own elite.

And that's the point of course. The information age means that Chinese officials are now often called to account, not at the ballot box, but in the court of public opinion. Corrupt and extravagant behaviour can be exposed on the internet in less time than it takes to eat a bowl of shark fin soup.

Workers make buns at the Qing-Feng Steamed Dumpling Shop where Chinese President Xi Jinping visited a day before in Beijing, China, Sunday, 29 December 2013 Mr Xi, who visited the dumpling shop on Saturday, wants public officials curb displays of extravagance

So perhaps we should expect more man-of-the-people moments from President Xi. But the desire to win genuine popular affection, as western politicians well know, can often backfire.

China is discovering that you cannot both court the media and expect to control it, or in other words, you cannot have your bun and eat it too.

There are signs that some of less favourable opinions about Mr Xi's down-to-earth dining are being filtered and blocked - but not all.

"Start thanking him when he fixes our food safety issues," writes one blogger.

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