Did President Xi’s Dumpling Outing Create a Pilgrimage Site?

Beijing, China—It’s well after lunch and Liu Fengju still hasn’t gotten her food. The sixty-seven-year-old wife of a retired railway worker came to Beijing to spend Spring Festival, the annual seven-day Chinese New Year celebration, with her niece. Wearing brown-colored glasses, a red sweater, and a purple padded jacket, and with her husband, sister, daughter, and sister’s granddaughter in tow, she complains that she arrived at Qingfeng Dumpling Eatery at noon—and now it’s 3:30 pm on February 5, a chilly and smoggy winter day. But they remain, along with hundreds of others, waiting for a chance to order the same meal that Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping ate six weeks earlier.

On December 28, with no advance notice, Xi visited a Western Beijing location of Qingfeng, one of 183 branches of a popular state-owned chain of Northern Chinese comfort food. Xi walked up to the counter and ordered six steamed pork and scallion buns, pig liver stew, and a plate of mustard leaf, for which he paid—with his own two hands, no less—$3.40. The story, and photos of Xi calmly and pleasantly eating his food, immediately went viral on Chinese social media, with many users on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, lauding his down-to-earth manner.

Unlike similar stunts by Xi’s predecessors and other high-ranking Chinese officials, Xi’s visit seemed more authentic. Instead of the usual entourage of other authorities, state media, and bodyguards, Xi brought only two men with him, and he looked at ease as he sat and ate his food in public. The story, widely covered by both Chinese and Western media at the time, still resonates with the Chinese populace. And those who converged in his wake took pride in Xi’s successful foray into retail politics. (The state media, always to be taken with a grain of salt on stories involving high-level politics, claimed the restaurant received a whopping 2,500 visitors a day. That said, the Qingfeng location Xi visited had sales of $71,000 on February 5, which is 4.7 times higher than the same figure from last year.)

A restaurant with white-tiled walls and unassuming décor, Qingfeng seats roughly three-dozen people; by 4 o’clock in the afternoon, the crowd had slimmed slightly as around 150 people packed into the 900-square-foot space. A handful of waiters scurried around, trying to keep order. “These people all came because of Xi,” said a waitress, who declined to give her name, as she is not authorized to speak to journalists. That afternoon, over a two-hour period, around four or five small groups of people asked the manager where Xi sat when he ate here. (The second table on the right-hand side in the inner room.) They took a picture of the seat and left.

A twenty-six-year-old graphic designer, who gave his name as Mr. Li, asked a passerby to take a picture of him standing in front of the store. “It’s my first trip to Beijing,” Li said. “I’ve visited Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace, and the Water Cube. This is my last stop.” Lanky, and wearing black-rimmed glasses and a gray jacket, Li said he had to catch a flight four hours later, and he constantly looked at his watch, as if to prove it. “I came all the way to see this place because the Chairman came here,” he said. “The news went viral on the Internet. All my friends back home know about Xi’s visit to this place.” (Not all the visits were supportive: Radio Free Asia reported in early January that petitioners massed on the Qingfeng branch to protest; we were unable to independently verify this report.)

Nearby, twenty-year-old Zhou Jia, a student at Nanjing Medical University in Southern China, stood in line with her brother and sister, seven and ten years old, respectively. After returning home to the municipality of Tianjin for Spring Festival, she took the bullet train (thirty-three minutes) to Beijing just to visit Qingfeng. “Order two ‘Chairman Combos,’” she shouted on the phone to her mother, who was ahead of her in line. The Chairman Combo—also called the Uncle Xi Combo—has become a popular phenomenon online. A composer from Guangzhou made a viral music video praising “the caring and loving Uncle Xi,” and “the far-reaching fame of the Chairman Combo”; a journalist from Beijing Morning News wrote a sappy Spring Festival narrative about bringing an “Uncle Xi Combo” home to his family.

But the shop has tried not to be seen exploiting the association: There were no signs or pictures in the restaurant commemorating the visit. And a manager disputed the idea that Xi lent his name to an actual menu item. “There is no Chairman Combo. It was a name given by these diners. The menu did not change after Xi’s visit,” said the manager, who declined to give his name.

The Chinese Communist Party is also reluctant to engender any sort of personality cult. Since the sidelining of Mao Zedong’s successor in the late 1970s, the party elite have, for various reasons, favored collective leadership. From the early 1980s to 2012, each successive ruler of China has grown less powerful. In keeping with the collective model, personal charisma has not been prized: Xi’s immediate predecessor Hu Jintao was a relatively feckless apparatchik with all the charisma of a chopstick. But Xi himself appears to be diverging from his predecessor, not only with his engaging manner, but in his consolidation of power: He appears to be China’s most powerful leader since the 1980s. And while there are no credible opinion polls on Chinese perceptions of their leadership—positive results would be suspect, while negative results would be suppressed—Xi appears to enjoy popular support.

Liu said she learned about Xi’s visit from the Luoyang Evening News, the local party paper from her home city of 6.6 million. “I had to see the place with my own eyes,” she said. She claimed she was especially moved by a certain detail in the story: “Xi held a boy when he was here, and that boy was from Luoyang. We were so proud!” Out of the blue, she mentioned her stint in her youth as a “rebel” under Mao during the anarchic Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and described her feelings toward Xi in that context. “When Chairman Mao died, we were all very scared,” said Liu.”Xi makes us feel reassured.”