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Publication Date : 19-02-2013
Public wants to hear directly from Xi but party prefers to control interaction
A mysterious microblogger who followed Communist Party chief Xi Jinping around, posting candid pictures of him travelling and even sleeping, continues to puzzle many people in China, just as it did when the microblog first surfaced.
Even as questions remain over who is behind the Sina Weibo microblog and its purpose, the saga has sparked calls for Xi to open his own account, akin to how leaders in other countries - like Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong - maintain Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Since last November, the "Xue Xi Fen Si Tuan" (Learn From Xi Fans Group) account on Sina Weibo - China's equivalent of Twitter - has attracted more than 800,000 followers with its updates on Xi's travels.
At times, it was even faster than state broadcaster Central China Television and Xinhua news agency, leading the former to lament being scooped.
The account sometimes posted unflattering photos of China's top leader on the road, a departure from the usual photos in official media. One shows Xi looking sideways and another has him napping on a bus.
Many suspect the Weibo account is the work of state propaganda machinery. But on February 9, the Associated Press published an exclusive interview with young college dropout Zhang Hongming, who claimed to be the brains behind the microblog.
Yet, two days later, Zhang, a migrant worker in south-western Chongqing, said he was closing his account, with a bye-bye posting hinting that the public spotlight was getting to him. The following day, he reneged on his words and continued with posts, including one condemning North Korea's nuclear test that day.
Zhang's ding-donging has triggered even more questions, said media watcher Xiao Qiang.
"Why did this party-loving young person provide his identity to foreign media instead of a domestic one, say Xinhua?" the University of California, Berkeley analyst told The Straits Times.
"There are hundreds of questions such as these being raised...
"He is not answering any directly but instead left a 'farewell' post without any clarification? One can't help but think this is a ploy, rather than the real story."
The logical conclusion is that Zhang, despite his claims of working alone, has the backing of the Communist Party, said media expert Zhan Jiang of the Beijing Foreign Studies University.
"In China, no information about the top leaders, especially details of their travels, can be so freely disseminated unless the party approves," he added.
Observers believe the key goal of a state-supported Weibo initiative is to boost Xi's popularity by narrowing the gap between him and the people.
Another aim is to capture a corner of the caustic cyberspace, like what many senior Chinese officials have been doing in recent years as the number of Internet users grows and Weibo rises in popularity.
A report last July said at least 30 senior officials - holding ranks at or above provincial levels - have Weibo accounts, up from 14 in December 2011.
The highest-ranking leader ascertained to have a personal Weibo account is Xinjiang party boss Zhang Chunxian, a member of the elite 25-member Politburo.
Others include Guizhou vice- governor Chen Mingming, Beijing's Information Office head Wang Hui and Zhejiang province's organisation chief Cai Qi, who mostly post on work, current affairs and societal trends.
Netizens believe Xi should follow their examples, instead of relying on proxies like Zhang.
User "I Am An Old Man" wrote: "(Xi opening a Weibo) is the right way to go, so that he can truly see how his people have been living and truly hear the people's voices."
Another declared: "(If Xi opens a Weibo account), he will surely have 1.3 billion followers."
So, could China see a day when the Communist Party chief opens and maintains a Weibo account?
Said Nottingham University analyst Wang Zhengxu: "It's possible but unlikely any time soon.
"The party still prefers very controlled ways of communicating with the public, and top leaders' interaction with the public is still a tightly managed area."
Professor Xiao believes a Xi Jinping Weibo account is plausible, though it could also spark more problems for the top honcho and the party. For instance, should the censors delete controversial comments on Xi's account?
"In a country without freedom of expression, where people have no access to public media and truth is constantly suppressed by unaccountable power as a norm, the symbolic gesture of leaders opening Weibo accounts will only highlight such problems, rather than resolve them," he said.