BEIJING (AP) — For weeks, a mysterious microblog has been lifting a veil from around China's new leader, Xi Jinping, with candid snapshots from his travels that defy the typically stiff and staged images of the leadership presented in state media.
Ordinary Chinese, foreign reporters and even China's own state media have speculated over who or what might be behind the blog — ostensibly registered to a female tech school graduate. Is Xi's own team surreptitiously trying to humanize the leader in the guise of citizen journalism? Is this a crusader's attempt to bring China's leaders down a notch and send them a message?
It turns out it's the brainchild of a male college dropout and migrant worker, Zhang Hongming, who told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview that he is both a genuine fan of China's new leader and intent on making him more accessible to the country's people.
"It is just me. It's completely an individual act," said Zhang, who started the "Fan Club of Learning From Xi" on China's Twitter-like Sina Weibo on Nov. 21 with a simple thought: Like other foreign leaders in these times, Chinese leaders should have an online following.
Zhang said he initially wanted to keep a low profile, but now wants to come forward to end the rampant speculation about his identity and intentions.
The account shares photos gathered from citizen volunteers and local reports throughout the country of Xi on his visits out in the field — and the candid images aren't always flattering. There are shots of him visiting a vegetable market, serving food to the elderly, looking sideways. One shows him napping in a van.
The microblog even tracked Xi's recent trip to Gansu province step by step, beating state media in reporting Xi's activities. National broadcaster CCTV complained on its own microblog: "What happened? The Study Xi Fan Club is quicker and closer to him than us."
The unexpected popularity of the microblog speaks to the Chinese public's demand to humanize their typically aloof leaders.
"Our leaders used to appear to be out of reach for the masses. They always appeared to be mysterious. Now the public can feel closer to their leader with timely and transparent information," Zhang said. "Xi is a national leader, but take his official title away, he's an ordinary person."
A native of the southwestern province of Sichuan, Zhang said he dropped out of a technical college in 2008 when he realized he was not learning anything. He moved to the more prosperous provinces in China's east and south, where he has worked many odd jobs, including delivery. He now helps produce wall decorations in the city of Wuxi in Jiangsu province.
Tech-savvy, Zhang said he often visits foreign sites and came to realize that many foreign leaders have online followings. "We didn't have one for Xi, and I felt like I could do that. After all, I am filled with expectations that our new leader will be affable," said Zhang, who was contacted through the password-protected private message function on his Weibo account that only he could reasonably have access to. During a later video chat, he showed his government-issued ID card to verify his identity.
Zhang said he initially registered the account as the Fan Club of General Secretary Xi, but found he had difficulty posting to it. Then he changed it to "the Fan Club of Learning from Xi," in a wordplay on Xi's name, which also means "studying" in Chinese.
Some of the initial followers were fans of Xi's wife, Peng Liyuan, a popular folk singer, Zhang said. As he focused more on casual images of Xi, he began to receive more input from fans.
Zhang said he initially did not want the focus to be on himself, so he registered his account under the fictitious profile of a Shaanxi province woman identified as a graduate of Xidian University.
The microblog has gained more than 700,000 followers, and did such a good job that the Chinese public began to wonder if it was an inside job by Xi's team. Foreign media chimed in with reports wondering how the account was able to post so many photos of Xi in a country where information on the leadership's movements is tightly controlled.
Zhang said the proliferation of smartphones has allowed fans to snatch impromptu photos of Xi. Although they live and work in a heavily guarded government compound in central Beijing, top Chinese leaders make a regular show of traveling to the provinces and meeting ordinary people.
The trips are normally tightly scripted, but occasional spontaneous incidents can occur. Communist Party No. 2, Li Keqiang, earned some unwanted attention recently when a bare-bottomed toddler crawled out of a cupboard during a recent televised visit with a farming family.
Zhang recently posted an explanation saying the microblog had no relationship with Xi, but that just triggered more suspicion, he said, adding in an interview that he now wanted to go further and reveal his identity to quell growing public speculation.
"There's so much guessing, and now by revealing myself I hope it will dispel everyone's suspicions," Zhang said.
Zhang said he relies on his instincts in deciding what to post to the account, and that he typically does not post photos from a location until Xi has moved on to his next stop.
Zhang said he has no idea if Xi approves of the fan club.
"But so far, no government worker or police has come after me," Zhang said. "That tells us they are getting more open, a sign the leadership is more open."
While the authorities have yet to issue an opinion on Zhang's microblog, response from other media watchers has been generally positive.
The interest in Zhang's microblog represents a desire to know more about the daily lives of high-level Chinese leaders, media commentator Liu Xuesong wrote in the Qianjiang Evening News, based in the southern city of Zhuhai.
"In a way it also represents a dissatisfaction in the degree of transparency surrounding the news about top leaders and a dissatisfaction with the tempo and forms of expression of the traditional official media," Liu wrote.