By Yicheng Zhang
Eating is one of those many ordinary activities that can define a politician’s public image. A politician’s choice of meal and his table manners are revealing of his habit, personality, and mindset. Mr. Trump’s obsession with American fast food (and his preference of eating everything with fine silverware) tells you a lot about his characters and contrasts starkly with his predecessor’s eating habits. In the age of Internet, a politician’s botched meal can be immortalized as a meme and will survive longer than his or her political manifesto (immediately jump out of my mind are Donald Trump’s infamous Taco Bowl, Marco Rubio’s water break, and Ed Miliband’s goofy battle against that bacon sandwich). Perhaps because dining is such a dangerous minefield for politicians, the world’s authoritarian leaders are often not particularly fond of eating before the camera. While Mr. Putin does not shy away from feasting at an ordinary neighborhood restaurant, it is hard to recall Comrade Stalin or Supreme Leader Kim Jung Un patronizing a local eatery.
This brings my mind back to that sensational event six years ago, when President Xi Jinping surprised the entire nation by dining in public. He walked into Qingfeng Restaurant (庆丰包子铺), a chain bun shop in Beijing, waited in the line, and ordered six steamed pork buns, a bowl of liver soup, and a dish of vegetables. After paying for his three-dollar-worth lunch, he carried his tray to a communal table, chatted with star-struck costumers, and took pictures with them. Throughout the twenty-minute lunch, there were minimal signs of security and the street outside was not cordoned off, a common measure for high officials on tour. The news became instantly viral. It was the first time in people’s memory that their highest leader dines in public.
I can’t stress enough how extraordinary this was.
Even though all good Party cadres strive to be a “man of the people”, modern Chinese Communist Party officials more closely resemble faceless bureaucrats than charismatic revolutionaries. Important Party leaders rarely interact with the general public at all. It was more than unprecedented for a high-level Party official, let alone the General Secretary of the Party, to swoop into a commercial restaurant and mingle with commoners. This was not the first time for a top leader to eat before the cameras either. On news channels, you can find all sorts of Party officials “dropping by” at some impoverished villages and sharing a simple meal at a peasant’s home. But those meals are certainly staged and are in no sense “in public”. There’s no doubt that Mr. Xi was trying to send out political messages by his choice of food and restaurant. Steamed pork bun is a very common food in China and is certainly not considered a delicacy. Cheap and easy to take away, it connotes working-class food better than any other dishes. Mr. Xi did not choose Qingfeng Restaurant by accident either - It is a chain fast food restaurant owned by a state-owned enterprise.
I remember being very ambivalent when I first read the news. Part of my mind instantly jumped to brand this whole affair as a shameless move by a politician to ingratiate the public. But part of me was distantly excited by the event. Is this the start of a more interactive, down-to-earth, or even liberal turn for the Party? Mr. Xi had just entered the office for less than a year at the time. He just kicked off his iconic anti-corruption movement and had yet to show his true color. Many people were hopeful that he would turn out to be a more liberal leader. While I did not share their optimism of a looming democratic reform, I did feel confident that more “eating-in-public” tours like this would plunge the Party towards a more humane and approachable direction. I had a strong feeling at the time that Mr. Xi is a remarkably different leader from his predecessors and that his reign would be a turning point for the country.
Reviewing this episode retrospectively gives one an eerie feeling. Alas, Mr. Xi does become the most important leader in modern Chinese history. But if the whole purpose of Mr. Xi’s casual lunch was to give him a common touch, that has certainly been offset by all the pomp and circumstances in recent years. He has never interacted with the public again like he did six years ago. Nor has the Party become more humane or approachable. It looks like someone put an abrupt stop to any future unannounced meal in public. The visit to Qingfeng becomes a standalone experiment that is most likely not to repeat. I don’t know why more casual meals like this have never materialized. Maybe it’s the Party’s paranoid concern with security at work. But I think it’s more likely to be caused by the public’s reception of Mr. Xi’s lunch.
While many netizens embraced the news positively, some were quick to doubt (before they got censored) whether the lunch was a staged political show, as state media later acknowledged that some preparations were secretly made before Mr. Xi’s visit. The buns soon bred a sub-cultural of their own. Subtle resemblances between Mr. Xi’s physical appearance and the bao’s texture and shape are only too good to be missed by netizens. “Baozi” (包子) or “the Bun” became a popular unofficial nickname of Mr. Xi, used by his supporters and detractors in equal fervent. “Qingfeng” became a byword for the era of Mr. Xi. When he scrapped his constitutional term limit in 2017, Mr. Xi was quickly dubbed as “Qingfeng Huangdi” (庆丰皇帝) or “Emperor Qingfeng” and many people spoke of the beginning of the Qingfeng Dynasty.
Whether those names are used in a negative nature is still debatable, as many people used them simply to express their harmless affection, censors are not often fond of the association between Mr. Xi and steamed buns. Certainly, that’s not the public image they wanted to conjure up when they first planned the meal. Uncareful usage of “the Bun” has reportedly landed some netizens in prison and the authorities went into gear last year to censor any regal allusions of Qingfeng.  There is another unintended consequence of Mr. Xi’s visit to Qingfeng. The eatery has since become a staging ground for petitioners protesting their grievances against local officials. 
Personally, I don’t think it’s a fair game for modern politicians to be put under intense scrutiny at their most personal moments, especially when they are eating. If I was to take hundreds of photographs of you eating a hot dog, I could guarantee to produce an inelegant image or two of you. It risks turning serious politics into entertainment and shifting attentions from policy to personality. But such is China’s unique state of affairs today that an ordinary lunch has been turned into an extraordinarily surreal national experience. China has changed much since Mr. Xi’s simple lunch six years ago and I will let you to decide whether that’s for better or worse.
One thing is for certain: business is more booming for Qingfeng than five years ago. The company’s net profit rose almost six-fold to 30.75 million yuan between 2014 and 2016 and it increased the number of its outlets by more than seventy percent to 314 at the end of 2015. Reportedly, Qingfeng Restaurant opened its first overseas store in Kazakhstan last year and was planning to establish a “bun research center” and a school of management.  The bun business has never been better than now.
Yicheng Zhang is a sophomore at Tufts University, where he is pursuing a double major in International Relations and History.
Image Source I: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1398414/steamed-buns-media-spotlight-after-xis-beijing-restaurant-visit
Image Source II: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/economy/article/2126555/chinese-president-xi-jinpings-favourite-bun-shop-beijing-seeks
Image Source III: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/economy/article/2126555/chinese-president-xi-jinpings-favourite-bun-shop-beijing-seeks