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‘Hottest' world leaders of 2014 on Weibo

The Chinese President Xi Jinping might have won the Harvard University’s survey as the most popular world leader, however, he is no match for the US President Barack Obama in the popularity contest on Weibo.

There are a number of world leaders, both domestic and foreign, that are the most talked about on Weibo. According to the statistics from Weiboreach, a Chinese social media information statistics research institution, Xi ranked second in chatter column in a list of world leaders (and spouses). And the first place went to Obama, who beat Xi by a large margin.

The data was collected from January 1 to December 19 2014 by Weiboreach. The chatter volume refers to the number of all posts and comments that mentioned the names listed during the period. Photo: Courtesy of Weiboreach

Obama: no different than an ordinary husband

In fact, the actual chatter volume about Obama might still be higher as the Chinese has given the American President a nickname “Ao Guanhai” which is also widely used on the social media but not included in the survey.

The survey also reveals the most frequently used words regarding Obama found on Weibo in the past year: Democratic Party, Republican controls Senate, Lame Duck President, Michelle, Christmas worry, buy present for wife, difficult, unconstitutional immigration action, condemn school attack, legislation imposing new sanction on Russia.

It’s interesting to note the Chinese seem to love the recent report of Obama admitting to the US media that “Michelle is hard to shop for”. “I never see her wear whatever I bought.” This comment resonates with a lot of Chinese who were happy to find out that the US president is “no different than an ordinary husband”.

Cameron: the “emotional” Prime Minister

The British Prime Minister David Cameron’s popularity among the Weibo users has a lot to do with Sherlock, the TV show. Cameron was one of the foreign leaders who have their own official account on Weibo which they use to push their diplomatic agenda. The long-lasting image of Cameron in many Weibo users’ mind is still his last December visit when he answered their request for more Sherlock.

“Sadly I can’t tell them what to do. But... I’ll do everything I can to say that people in China want more Sherlock Holmes and more of the modern version,” Cameron promised, which earned him many fans in China.

What made him stand out this year is his last speech in Scotland before the Referendum in September. “No divorce”, “in tears”, “emotional speech”, “Scotland referendum” are the hottest words for the Prime Minister. The Chinese rarely see their own politician showing emotions in their public speeches. Cameron’s touching speech to the Scottish people certainly stroke a chord with the Chinese.

Putin: unpopular in the west, popular in China

The Chinese like Putin, there is no doubt about that. An edited video of Putin singing at the Russian version of The Voice continued to make rounds on Weibo after it first went viral at the end of 2013, so much so that the phrase “The Voice of Russia” manages to pop up in the list of the most popular phrases describing Putin in 2014.

“Strong”, “severe challenge”, “Crimea Crisis”, “Ruble depreciation”, “Ukraine Incident” “not popular (in the west)” and “natural gas export” are the hot words for Putin. It has not been a great year for the Russian President, but it didn’t seem to have affected the Chinese people’s perception of him.

One story about Putin that did not quite make the cut was the famous “shawl” incident during APEC. The images of Putin putting a shawl over the shoulders of Peng Liyuan, wife of the Chinese President Xi Jinping as they wait to watch the fireworks triggered what perhaps was one of the fasted reactions of the Weibo censors who deleted almost all related Weibo posts. In all fairness, the actual chatter volume of the Russian President should be much higher.

Change of Styles for the Chinese leadership

On the domestic front, Xi Jinping won the top place with a clear margin. Indeed, the past year has seen the Chinese President featured on the Chinese social media many times. “Meng”, the Chinese Internet slang meaning “cute” is the most popular describer of the Chinese President, along with “Xi Dada”, his unofficial nickname on the Chinese social media.

The new Chinese leadership surely knows how to use the social media to their advantage. Last year’s “steamed buns” came back in varied forms dedicated to boosting Xi’s image. There are Weibo accounts such as @小道妹子 that release behind-the-scene photos of Xi and Peng in every big state affairs. It is widely believed that the account is run by Xi’s propaganda team.

A set of President Xi Jinping posing with a Santa Clause during his visit to Finland in 2010 was posted on Weibo by the mysterious account @小道妹子 at Christmas Eve. Photo: weibo.com

CCTV also picked up on the hint and carefully selected the footage on its now notorious 7 pm Evening News. A clip of Xi helping Peng over a high doorstep when visiting the Chinese Xue Long polar research vessel went viral on Weibo in November. The Weibo users then discovered a series of such nuances in CCTV’s various news footage. They appeared to have loved seeing the humane side of their leader. “Xi Dada is turning the Evening News into a romantic drama.” It may be a joke, but a good-natured one. 

Perhaps Xi has to thank his wife for his popularity too. Many Chinese knew and loved Peng Liyuan long before they knew who Xi Jinping was. And there has been nothing but praises of her since she officially became China’s First Lady. The Chinese are very proud that they now have a “presentable” First Lady to show the world. For a nation that puts so much value on “face”, it is believed that having a beautiful, fashionable, and graceful First Lady makes China look good on the world stage.

"Tiger and fly", "APEC summit", "Yingtai night talk" (with Obama), "the Governance of China", "National Memorial Day" are the hot words for Xi, which is more of an indicator of what was allowed on Weibo rather than a real reflection of how the Weibo users are truly interested.

The leadership’s new approach to social media is also reflected on the Weibo reactions to Li Keqiang. “Super salesman”, “confident”, “Eupropean visit”, “people’s livelihood”, “security housing” are among the most mentioned words about the Chinese Premier.

Never before has the Chinese media used words such as “super salesman” to describe its leaders. Now it is not only tolerated, but also encouraged. Compared to Xi, Li kept a low-key presence on the social media. So was Wang Qishan, the man responsible for implementing Xi’s tiger-bashing plan, another Politburo member that enjoyed high Weibo exposure in the past year.

Similar to Xi and Li, whose refreshingly colloquial style of remarks brought them closer to the general public, Wang is known for his off-the-cuff speeches, and particularly for being a fan of the Korean TV show “Are you from the stars”, which he quoted during the 2014 Two Sessions and remained his trademark throughout the year.

All three of them have more male followers on Weibo than female, based on results of the survey. Wang tops with 74.83% of the posts discussing him coming from men, while the number for Xi and Li are at 59.68% and 65.85% respectively.

The same goes for Cameron and Putin who generates more Weibo reactions from men rather than women, according to the survey. The only exception is Obama, who has won more favor with the ladies who accounts for 59.82% of the posts about him.


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