Speculation over Xi Jinping's weibo account
Microblog with rare photos and details of party leader's itinerary attracts thousands of followers
A new microblog account dedicated to Xi Jinping is attracting thousands of influential followers amid speculation that it might be run by someone close to the country's top leader, if not the man himself.
Since its debut late last month, the Sina Weibo account "Fans Group to Learn From Xi" has demonstrated an unusual level of access to the recently installed Communist Party chief, posting family photos and sensitive details about his travels.
The account provided a key resource for reporters assigned to cover Xi's low-key sweep through Guangdong earlier this month and has since attracted numerous journalists, academics and government officials. The account now has more than 52,000 subscribers.
Perhaps the greatest indication that the account is being run by someone from the president-in-waiting's inner circle is that it has not been shut down by government censors. Social media sites dealing with top leaders are usually short-lived.
In it's first weeks, the site has posted dozens of rare photographs of Xi and his family. One shows Xi as a child with his parents in the 1950s.
Another shows him working as a "sent-down youth" during the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. There is one of him as a low-ranking party cadre in the 1980s, one of him and his wife Peng Liyuan and another of him playing soccer.
Zhang Zhian, an expert on new media from Guangzhou's Sun Yat-sen University, noted that the photos appear to have been professionally uploaded.
They include clear, well-informed captions with details that would be hard for an ordinary internet user to collect.
"I guess the person or the team who operates the microblog is someone with a close connection to Xi," Zhang said.
During Xi's "southern tour", the account was first to report key details about Xi's schedule and posted several close-up photos apparently taken by a member of his entourage.
The official CCTV and Xinhua news agency made no mention of the five-day trip until it was over. Most Hong Kong reporters trailing him were forced to photograph him from a distance
The tone and content of the account also suggests it enjoys official backing. In recent posts, the microblog has raised concerns about inequitable social policies and urged local authorities to act.
On December 14, it posted a Xinhua item about a knife in Henan in which 22 school pupils were injured. That same day, the account's managers conveyed their condolences to the United States embassy in Beijing over the primary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
"Please convey my deep sympathy and sincere consolation to the victims and their family and thank the American people for their concerns about the injured students in Henan," it said.
One Shenzhen propaganda official said Xi showed a familiarity with the microblogging community during his trip, asking how many people follow Tencent boss Ma Huateng and suggesting that officials look into a corruption allegation circulated online.
"I believe this microblog has close connection with Xi," the official said. "As I have heard, many party officials from Shenzhen and Guangzhou departments follow the microblog. If that's true, at least, it could be a window into the conjecture of top leadership."
Whatever the microblog's origin, some internet users have seen the account as a possible channel to let Xi know about social ailments.
They have sent messages to the microblog, calling attention to various grievances and allegations of official malpractice.
In the past few years, microblogging sites have given ordinary citizens a voice and a new tool for debating social issues and political and economic reforms.
Peng Peng , a political scientist at the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences, said microblogs could provide a way for top leaders to collect public opinion without going through the bureaucracy.
"It is very possible that China's new leadership is also joining a microblog because of the enormous power of the internet," he said.
But Zhang said the Xi microblog so far looks like a fairly typical propaganda effort.
"The public should not expect too much," Zhang said. "It is definitely trying to cultivate an image of a new, more accessible leader."