One lesson visiting US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew might have learned is that the Chinese are far less interested about what comes out of his mouth than what goes into it.
It’s true that Lew’s high-profile meeting with President Xi Jinping on Tuesday has made national headlines. But what has triggered intense debate online was Lew’s low-profile lunch at a Beijing dumpling restaurant following the meeting.
Lew and his three colleagues had spent 109 yuan (HK$136) on a meal of dumplings, cold dishes and tea, said Chinese media reports.
Their bill has apparently shocked some people, who expect officials of even lower status to splurge thousands of yuan on luxury meals - paid by taxpayers.
“He must have done it purposely to embarrass Chinese officials,” wrote a weibo blogger.
“I assume Lew didn’t ask for a receipt either,” wrote another blogger, referring to a popular practise by Chinese officials who would use the receipt to get a reimbursement later.
“I can actually afford to take the US treasury secretary out!” exclaimed a blogger. “I feel rich now.”
“Twenty-seven yuan per official,” wrote another blogger. “This is the true China dream dreamed by the Chinese.”
The public mood was probably most felicitously caught by a weibo post by Beijing scholar Xu Xin:
“After reading today’s news about Lew’s 109 yuan dumpling meal, I was reminded of Joe Biden’s 79 yuan meal in a small Beijing eatery, and Gary Locke’s flight to Beijing in an economy class cabin. I also think of the hundreds of billions of yuan our public servants spend each year on meals, transport and overseas trips, and children in rural China who can’t afford clothes, food or school furniture.”
Xu later posted on his weibo on Tuesday: “I’d like to take the US treasury secretary out, and the meal will be no lower than 901 yuan?”
Xu’s invitation surely got the attention of the US consulate in Hong Kong, which replied on its official weibo account on Wednesday morning:
“Mr Xu, it’s not that we are putting on airs. But a 109 yuan meal is more than enough to feed us. A 901 yuan meal? We will say no but we appreciate it.”
Lew is not the first US dignitary to have impressed the Chinese with his everyman habits.
In 2011, a photograph of US Ambassador to China Gary Locke carrying a backpack and buying coffee at the Seattle airport also went viral on China's social media and drew admiration and praise from netizens.