At first glance, Xi Jinping's weekend sweep through a pair of impoverished villages looks much like the usual year-end trips of his predecessor, Hu Jintao.
But unlike Hu's official tours, which had seldom stirred much public discussion, online or otherwise, Xi's visit to the villages in Hebei province earned him rave reviews - even from some of the most critical pundits.
The trick behind Xi's public relations success seems simple enough: the new leader actually allowed his remarks and activities during the trip to be updated in almost real-time on microblogging sites.
While such transparency has long been common practice elsewhere, political analysts described the access as "extraordinary and unprecedented" on the mainland. Previously, the travels of top leaders have been treated as state secrets and state media were barred from disclosing details until everyone was safely back in Beijing.
But the decades-old taboo was seemingly laid aside yesterday, said Professor Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian and analyst. He noted that both Xinhua and China Central Television ran almost live reports on Xi's trip. The news went viral soon after Xinhua revealed shortly after 9am yesterday on Sina Weibo that Xi, who took over the top party post from Hu last month, was on his way to one of the country's most destitute areas more than 300 kilometres southwest of the capital amid freezing cold.
Photos showing Xi walking on a snowy path chatting and holding hands with poor and elderly villagers were released by Xinhua and CCTV on their official weibo.
"Wow! Our top leader is visiting one of the poorest villages in the coldest season!" one microblogger named Yijinyudao wrote. "And the real-time updates have made it look even better."
Analysts have also praised Xi for his apparent attempt to embrace social media, which appeared to be part of his and premier-to-be Li Keqiang's efforts to streamline government and prod local authorities into action. "It is good to see Xi try to appeal to popular opinions on microblogging sites and set a good example," said Professor Zhan Jiang, a media specialist at Beijing Foreign Studies University. "Apart from setting populist images, it also shows the new leaders are more confident about themselves," he said.
Both Zhan and Zhang said the move underlined the growing power of microblogging sites.
"It is fair to say we've seen some breakthroughs here, which is conducive to making a more open and transparent government," Zhang said. "But it may be too early to say it can become normal practice to be implemented in the long run.
"Because even if top leaders crave the truth, local officials may have been used to making such inspection trips as a publicity stunt."