Updated: 03/14/2014 11:28 | By Agence France-Presse

Xi Jinping: Man of the people, or careful image builder?

Kicking balls, eating steamed buns and carrying his own umbrella, Xi Jinping is at the apex of Chinese power but has been busy building his "ordinary guy" credentials during his first year in charge.

Xi Jinping: Man of the people, or careful image builder?

Kicking balls, eating steamed buns and carrying his own umbrella, Chinese President Xi Jinping is at the apex of power but has been busy building his "ordinary guy" credentials during his first year in charge - by Alexey Kudenko

Xi assumed control with an impeccable pedigree as the son of a revolutionary hero, a communist "princeling" fulfilling a Party destiny to lead the world's most populous country.

He sought to build an image as a foreign policy hardliner among neighbouring countries, a strong-minded corruption fighter in his own party, and a driver of lofty aspirations centred on what he calls the "Chinese dream" with political commentators.

But among ordinary Chinese on the country's hugely popular -- but censored -- Internet chatrooms, the barrel-chested leader is known simply as "Xi Dada" or "Big Xi".

It is an affectionate, almost chummy moniker which appears to suggest the gap between power and the people is closing.

Following on as head of state from the stiff, almost robotic Hu Jintao, Xi needed only to inject a small dose of charisma into his role to project a radically different persona.

But the campaign to promote as a people's president the man whose pop star wife, Peng Liyuan, has general's rank and whose daughter, Xi Mingze, studied at Harvard under a pseudonym, has gone much further.

Xi has voiced his passion for football -- the most watched sport in China -- and Wang Wen, president of the official supporter's group of Chinese Super League team Beijing Guoan said: "We can tell from his views on football that he's a real fan."

"We think he's a man of the people," he told AFP. "He shows an attitude towards football which is unprecedented."

Xi showed off his kicking skills with a Gaelic football at Dublin's Croke Park in 2012 during a state visit to Ireland.

But ordinary supporters say that Beijing-born Xi has never attended a match at the Workers' Stadium where Guoan play, despite living only a few miles away in Zhongnanhai, a closely guarded compound next to the Forbidden City.

- Rolled up trouser legs -

He has occasionally ventured out to mix with the hoi polloi, dropping by the popular Qingfeng Steamed Stuffed Bun Shop in December, paying 21 yuan ($3.50) out of his own pocket for an ordinary meal of pork-and-onion buns, green vegetables and fried liver.

At the time many mocked the visit, with one online post saying: "Ask him how much it costs for a pound of steamed buns. Do you think he knows?"

But when AFP visited this week the focus of attention in the restaurant was the stool where Xi sat.

Yu Ming, 52, guarded the spot, as she waiting for her husband while he queued with about 30 people, as Xi patiently did.

"He came here because he wants to mix with ordinary people," Yu said. 

"There is no way it was a publicity stunt," she added, as her fellow customers, who mainly appeared to be manual or domestic workers meeting their wives and husbands after work, listened in.

In 2012 Xi's relatives were reported by US news agency Bloomberg to have amassed hundreds of millions of dollars in assets.

The president made another carefully-orchestrated appearance last month, as pollution readings in the routinely smog-hit city hit extreme levels, when he decided to take a stroll -- without a facemask, but accompanied by television cameras -- in Nanluoguxiang, a popular shopping and cafe district.

"Breathing the same air, sharing the same fate," said a widely shared online post, with environmental problems angering many ordinary Chinese.

Some Internet users surmised that Xi was proving his vigour, a modern-day echo of Chairman Mao swimming in the Yangtze almost 50 years ago, another less-than-impromptu act which was captured by nearby, carefully positioned cameras.

But Liang Zhongyu, an education student from the northern province of Heilongjiang visiting the area, insisted it was "not to deliberately build an image".

"He came here to look at the people, to see if we are well or not," she said.

Internet users have also shared photos of Xi standing with his trouser legs rolled up, holding his own umbrella as he surveys a river port during heavy rain.

Li Yu, a 20-year-old law student, took pictures of a courtyard in an alley off Nanluoguxiang where Xi asked residents about their living conditions during his visit.

"There is no difference between Xi and the people," she said, giggling. "Well... none in terms of us all being Chinese."

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