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A glimpse of Xi Jinping's charm up close
Xi Jinping made a point of getting close to the people on his recent visit to Shenzhen. And you can't get much closer than shaking his hand
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"Will you ever wash your hand again?" friends in the media have been asking me since an unexpectedly close encounter a week ago with new Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping.
More than a dozen Shenzhen residents shook hands with the president-in-waiting at the city's Lotus Hill Park during his five-day inspection trip to the Pearl River Delta. I was one of them.
During the tour, Xi cultivated an image of a man of the people, with low-key security arrangements, folksy smiles and flashes of charm. Many delta residents - party officials, white-collar workers and even taxi drivers - are still talking excitedly about his "southern tour" from December 7 to Tuesday.
Political observers said the visit was a tribute to Deng Xiaoping's famous southern tour in 1992 and intended to send a signal of commitment to deepening reform. It also paid tribute to his reformist father Xi Zhongxun's commitment to opening up. Deng gave Xi's father the task of setting up experimental zones for economic reforms in 1979.
The five-day visit was a tightly scheduled affair. Xi visited several places in five delta cities - Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Foshan Huizhou and Guangzhou - home to landmarks to the spirit and achievements of reform. In Shenzhen they included the Qianhai experimental zone, information technology giant Tencent, and Yumin village and Lotus Hill, symbols of the success of Deng's open-door policy.
Xi's common touch was best illustrated on a walkabout at Lotus Hill. Residents were free to hike in the area before 9.30am. Police were dressed in casual sports outfits and some were even accompanied by family members.
Hong Kong reporters and press photographers were allowed to interview and take pictures of those present until 8am, when they were politely but firmly ushered away.
I hid among the crowd, along with another woman Hong Kong journalist. At around 9am, with Xi's arrival imminent, the excitement was building among the 200 or so Shenzhen residents on the top of the hill.
Normally, only a carefully selected few are allowed to observe such events.
Police officers told them to stand on either side of the plaza in front of the bronze statue of Deng. "Everyone can see the leader soon," they said. "Let's be nice and peaceful as the chief is nice to you."
Xi arrived about 10am, accompanied by Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang , provincial governor Zhu Xiaodan and four retired party officials who had been with Deng on his 1992 trip - Li Hao, Wu Nansheng, Liang Guangda and Chen Kaizhi. All four are well-known among Cantonese as outspoken reformists.
After a short ceremony paying tribute to Deng and a five-minute speech to the retired officials, the crowd cheered as Xi approached them. A man in his 50s tried his luck and succeeded in shaking hands with Xi. Others pressed forward, trying to get close to the new leader.
There were no heavily armed policemen in sunglasses. Xi shook hands with everyone who got close to him. Why not give it a try? The only obstacle was the crush of elderly people between me and one of the world's most powerful people. Stretching out a long arm helped and I shook his hand. It was that easy.
Plain-clothes police began to grow nervous and tried to prevent the growing crowd from chasing after Xi. But he remained relaxed and willing to interact with the people. Inspired by Xi, Wang signalled a plain-clothes policeman not to stop the two Hong Kong journalists from taking photos. "Let her be. She's just taking pictures," he said.
Encouraged by such a courteous reception, we ran ahead of Xi and shouted: "Chairman, please say something to Hongkongers."
Xi, still smiling, paused a second and looked our way before saying: "Hong Kong will definitely stay thriving and prosperous."
At that moment, his charm almost made me believe his promise.