About 200 Shenzhen residents had an unexpectedly close encounter with Xi Jinping yesterday as the new Communist Party chief turned on the charm during the second day of his southern tour.
Xi, the president-to-be, shook hands with several people who had gathered in advance of his 10am visit to Lotus Hill, and even answered questions from a pair of Hong Kong journalists in the crowd.
Asked what message he had for Hongkongers, Xi said: "Hong Kong will definitely stay thriving and prosperous."
Xi, 59, is known for his casual, approachable style, but previous party general secretaries have preferred more choreographed public appearances.
"The party's decision [to implement the] open-door policy and reform is correct and we have to continue unswervingly. … We also should take new ground," he told his entourage.
The visit to Lotus Hill Park, which features a bronze statue of late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, appeared intended to emphasise the new leader's commitment to the economic "opening up" policies that helped make Shenzhen the booming metropolis it is today.
Xi is following in the footsteps of Deng on his famous 1992 southern tour. He has ordered that the visit he kept low-key, banning red carpets and elaborate banquets.
Security also seemed less restrictive. Before Xi's arrival, police told the people at the park that they could stay. Normally, only a carefully selected few are allowed to observe such events.
Most reporters, however, were shuffled out.
The general secretary, who is on his first trip beyond Beijing since his elevation to the role last month, arrived with Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang, provincial Governor Zhu Xiaodan and several retired party officials who had been with Deng on his earlier trip.
In a five-minute ceremony paying tribute to Deng, Xi laid flowers at his statue. Then Xi and his entourage bowed three times. Xi also planted a tree.
The new leader appeared relaxed and willing to interact with onlookers who scrambled to get close to him, shaking hands with several of them. Wang also signalled a plain-clothes policeman not to stop a Sunday Morning Post reporter from taking photos.
"He was very charming, but I never expected to have the honour of shaking hands with the chairman," said a tourist from Sichuan who happened to be on a hike in the park.
As his van prepared to leave, Xi opened the window and waved to the crowd, another break from past practice. The gesture drew applause.
Earlier, Xi visited Yumin village in Luohu district, a now-wealthy symbol of Deng's open-door policy. A Shenzhen source said Xi also went to visit his mother, who is living in Shenzhen at an unknown address.
Xi left for Zhuhai and Shunde yesterday afternoon and is expected to make another public appearance in Guangzhou today.
While security was less visible in Shenzhen, road users in Zhuhai complained on Sina Weibo of route closures yesterday afternoon.
Although his trip has been covered by Hong Kong and overseas media, neither Xinhua nor CCTV has reported on it yet.
Additional reporting by Li Jing