WHEN Zhang Hongming, a 29-year-old former deliveryman, posted his first feed under his microblog account about Chinese President Xi Jinping two years ago, he never expected to have nearly 2.6 million followers one day, or to make a business from it.
Until recently, reporting on national leaders — let alone making money in the process — was considered the exclusive province of official media like China Central Television (CCTV).
But to many, the fact Zhang has kept the account operating for more than two years shows a change in the public image of China’s leaders. It also seems to show a new tolerance from the government to allow such images to flourish online.
Zhang’s microblog is called Xue Xi Fensi Tuan, or Learn from Xi Fan Club. He also opened an e-commerce store, where he sells products that capitalize on the microblog.
“I only started the online shop on November 11, and it is hard to estimate the income now, but I get some payment from online advertising on social media, about 4,000 yuan (US$650) to 5,000 yuan per month, just enough for daily needs,” Zhang revealed in an earlier interview.
Many Chinese were surprised to see animated images of Xi and other leaders in a widely circulated 5-minute video explaining the different voting systems in China, the United States and the United Kingdom by an anonymous poster on Youku and other video websites.
Zhang is not the only one running such social media accounts. The fashionable first lady Peng Liyuan and Premier Li Keqiang both have similar fan clubs across various social media platforms. One Peng fan club is called the Liyuan Fan Club, while one of Li’s is Xiang Li Xuexi, or Learn from Li.
“These social media accounts and fan clubs often post photos that are different from the unified pictures from national broadcasters. Often they show a human moment of the leaders,” says Lisa Fan, a PR specialist who has worked on some government-related projects.
She gives the example of an animated photo of Xi and Peng from the recent APEC summit, where the first lady eyed the president to wave to the camera when he forgot. Netizens loved the photo and joked about how Xi Dada, or Daddy Xi as he is commonly referred to on the Internet, always listens to Peng Mama, or Mommy Peng, even without words.
“There have been many popular photos online that reveal the intimate relations and tacit understanding between Daddy Xi and Mommy Peng, and that is an excellent new way to show national leaders as ordinary people, and how their relations are just like that of our own parents, making them instantly closer to us,” Fan explains. “That is a very modern strategy of government relations, a big step forward.”
The relationship between Xi and Peng has caught the attention of many people, and even inspired a group of young musicians in Henan Province to write and sing a song called “Xi Dada Loves Peng Mama.”
“Daddy Xi loves Mommy Peng, a legend it is. Mommy Peng loves Daddy Xi, and it is most powerful with love!” The simple melody and lyrics, accompanied by a video composed of 33 photos showing the chemistry between the two, attracted 20 million clicks only five days after it was posted.
On the National Day in 1984, university students in Beijing caught the country’s attention when they presented a slogan saying “Hello Xiaoping” that was shown on national TV. The Chinese public was surprised to see students addressing the highly respected Deng Xiaoping by his first name. It was previously unthinkable, especially on the official state broadcaster.
Almost 20 years later, then President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao gained nicknames from young Chinese, as Tao Ge, (Brother Tao) and Bao Yeye (Grandpa Bao). Now, in addition to Daddy Xi and Mommy Peng, the premier is often referred to as Qiang Ge, or Bro Qiang on the Internet.
Fan has also noticed change in regional governments that she worked with.
“They didn’t care much about the PR section before,” she says. “Now many of them actually seek professional suggestions, and they are not so persistent on maintaining a very official public image anymore.”
Self-employed microblogger Zhang has posted many photos that are different from those posted by national broadcasters. They tend to be more humane or even behind-the-scenes photos that Fan considers excellent.
Since he and his microblog first caught attention in early 2013, many have suspected Zhang may be related to the government, especially because he posted photos of Xi’s international visits and official events that were not seen elsewhere. The pictures were often taken within close range, as if the photographer were just standing in front of the president.
Zhang soon revealed himself as a Sichuan native based in Jiangsu Province, a college dropout who had been a factory worker, delivery guy and now operating social media accounts full-time.
“When I first started, I tried all means to search for the photos online, and to get in contact with journalists and local people who might be received by Xi during his visits,” Zhang said in the early interview. “Later, as the microblog got so many fans, I started getting photos from everywhere. I don’t know the identity of these people, but it doesn’t matter.”
Three weeks ago, Zhang opened his online shop under the same brand Xue Xi Fensi Tuan and sold products that resemble the ones Xi used on TV, as well as souvenirs imprinted with Xi’s image. A cup that resembles the one Xi used when seen on CCTV costs about 100 yuan in the shop.
Zhang is hardly the first one to do this. Peng, who is not only China’s fashionable first lady but also a veteran folk singer, has been admired for her graceful dressing style since her first official visit in March 2013 to Russia. It was the first time that Chinese public attention gathered on the first lady.
The clothes she wore, as well as the jewelry and handbags she carried, all became instant hot search items on the Internet. Many people were surprised to discover they were all made in China.
Emma Lu, a 60-year-old Shanghai retired policewoman, had little interest in news about public visits of national leaders before. But she was attracted by the black handbag Peng used during her Russia visit and was determined to find the same one. She asked her daughter-in-law to search on the Internet and realized it was not available, and finally bought a very similar one from a local department store.
“Peng Liyuan” and “Mommy Peng” are hot key search terms on Taobao.com, China’s largest online shopping platform. When searching “Xi Jinping” or “Daddy Xi,” the site shows no result due to regulations.
Because of his microblog, Zhang has gotten a lot of media coverage about his shop, which also brought pressure to the young man. He recently changed the description of his products to leave out Xi’s name and stopped selling souvenirs bearing Xi’s image.
“I feel bad to do so as head of the Learn from Xi Fan Club,” he said.
He also stopped accepting any interviews, and is no longer using the brand to help sales. He has changed the shop’s name to Hong Ming gift shop.