China’s New Leaders Burnish Image by Revealing Personal Details

China’s next president sometimes stays up late to watch sports on television, and the country’s next premier is a fan of American economist Jeremy Rifkin.

Xi Jinping, named general secretary of the Communist Party last month, fell in love with his wife, the folk singer Peng Liyuan, at first sight in 1986, the official Xinhua News Agency said in a profile of him today. Li Keqiang, the No. 2 leader, married an English literature professor named Cheng Hong, the news agency said in a separate profile also published today.

The Xinhua profiles -- which labeled Xi as a “man of the people” and Li as “a man who puts people first” -- come as the Communist Party makes efforts to burnish its leaders’ image amid a widening wealth gap and dissatisfaction over corruption. The party recently announced an anti-corruption drive and has sought to limit extravagance such as lavish banquets, ostentatious welcome ceremonies and excessive floral arrangements.

“The top leadership has been very much detached from the people, so they want to give them a human face to show that this generation is a little different, a little bit closer to the people,” Bo Zhiyue, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s East Asia Institute. “Whether this will be successful is really a big question mark. The reputation of the Communist Party is really suffering from a huge deficit as a result of corruption.”

The profile of Xi, titled “Man of the people, statesman of vision,” details the time he spent living in China’s countryside, and describes how he once built a methane tank. “It might be Xi’s earliest attempt to change China’s countryside,” the profile said, noting that his daily tasks included farming, carrying coal and collecting dung.

Dauntless Look

“His dauntless, self-assured look, much like it is now, offers hints of his down-to-earth style,” Xinhua said of Xi, describing a photograph of him at 16 years old.

Xi likes to drink “a bit” during parties with friends, and enjoys swimming, mountaineering and watching basketball, soccer and boxing, Xinhua said.

Many of the details in the profiles have been published overseas and not in China’s domestic media. The story mentioned his daughter, Xi Mingze, whom Xi and his wife hope will lead an honest life. The story contrasted with standard policy that treats details of Chinese leaders’ personal lives as state secrets.

Searching names of Zhang Beili, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s wife, and Hu Haifeng, the son of Chinese President Hu Jintao, on the Chinese search engine Baidu results in a notice saying that “in accordance with relevant laws, regulations and policies, some search results are not shown.”

Reform Signal

“It’s a signal of reform worth attention -- China’s top leaders are making a starting step in transparency,” Cao Lin, a columnist working for the China Youth Daily, tweeted in his verified Weibo account. “Reform, political reform, must be started from the top.”

Li reads English works in his spare time and monitors the world’s economic development closely, Xinhua said. When Rifkin, the president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, wrote his book “The Third Industrial Revolution,” Li told his state scholars to pay close attention to it.

Li even noticed an article about combustible ice, or frozen natural gas, and instructed the Ministry of Land and Resources to follow the research.