Xi Jinping Eats Some Dumplings at a Restaurant

... and China swoons. Why the president's casual lunch resonates so much in the country.

Chinese president Xi Jinping was photographed last Friday paying for a steamed bun lunch at Beijing's Qingfeng restaurant. (Sina Weibo)

Last Friday, Chinese president Xi Jinping walked into Qingfeng restaurant in western Beijing and, after waiting in line, ordered six pork buns, one dish of fried pig liver, and one vegetable dish. After paying 21 yuan (about $3.50) in cash, Xi ate his meal at a communal table and chatted with customers before departing.

Initially, Chinese Internet users suspected the photos of the event were fake—earlier this year, a story that Xi had personally hailed a Beijing cab proved to be a hoax—but once China's official news agencies confirmed their veracity, the images went viral. The next day, customers flocked to the Qingfeng restaurant, and, after braving a line that snaked out the door, ordered the exact meal their president had eaten.

In China, where important officials seldom mingle with the general public, Xi's casual lunch showed fresh evidence of his populist streak. Though Chairman Mao Zedong cultivated a "man of the people" persona through frequent interactions with the public, modern Chinese politicians more closely resemble faceless bureaucrats than charismatic populists, making Xi's approach all the more startling—and refreshing.

Chinese leader Mao Zedong (R) assists Beijing residents in the construction of the Ming Tombs Reservoir, in 1958. (NetEase)

Xi's choice of a simple "comfort food" restaurant is no coincidence. Since assuming office, the president has ordered Communist Party officials to curtail lavish banquet meals, which served as a convenient foil for public anger over corruption.  Last December, Xi even went so far as to specify what he considered an appropriate amount of food for an official meal: four dishes and a soup.

Whether the president's anti-corruption drive will succeed is unclear, but Xi has certainly shown a knack for public relations that eluded his predecessor, the wooden Hu Jintao. And his pious frugality, at least, has rubbed off on the Qingfeng restaurant itself: When The South China Morning Post asked whether the "Xi Jinping lunch" would become a regular menu item, a staffer named Wang demurred:

“We don’t want to use his visit as a stunt to make money,” she said.