Why This Seemingly Innocuous Photo of Xi Jinping Is So Important

A simple act of rolling his pants up -- and holding his own umbrella -- shows a president eager to show a common touch.

High-level Chinese politicians generally aren't known for their baby-kissing, "man of the people" charisma. While their American counterparts strain to be unassuming -- recall Al Gore's "earth tones" obsession from 2000 -- China's leaders typically maintain a studied aloofness from the public. That's why this photograph of President Xi Jinping has raised eyebrows in China in the last few days:

Sina Weibo

The image itself is simple: President Xi, standing on the left, has rolled his pants up and is holding an umbrella -- sensible, since it appears to be raining heavily. The message, though, is subtly powerful: Xi is behaving as an ordinary person, rather than an entitled official, would. 

In the world of Chinese politics, this speaks volumes. Consider that a year ago, the very fact that U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke was photographed ordering his own coffee from Starbucks made waves in the country, where officials of his station would surely delegate that responsibility to an underling:

U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke ordering coffee -- and causing a stir in China. (Sina Weibo)

President Xi does have a reputation for being personable -- especially in comparison to his wooden predecessor, Hu Jintao. But China has also changed, too. Income inequality and corruption have sparked public anger in the country, and leading Communist Party officials have attracted attention for their displays of wealth and privilege. Having the president appear in a rain storm holding an umbrella doesn't actually change anything, of course, but it at least shows a down-to-earth style that's typically absent in Chinese politics.

It's worth noting, though, that Xi's rolled-up pants look is hardly the most casual image ever taken of a Chinese leader. In 1966, the year China tumbled into the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao Zedong was famously photographed swimming the Yangtze River (though the men surrounding him were his security detail, not commoners). Will Xi soon take a public dip for the masses? It's too soon to tell. But evidence of his more relaxed style continues to pop up: when greeting a young female resident on a trip to Wuhan yesterday, the president reportedly said: "Hello, beautiful." 

Chairman Mao Zedong, in the foreground, shows his vigor by swimming across the Yangtze River at age 72. (Fair Use)

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Matt Schiavenza is a former associate editor at The Atlantic

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