BEIJING _ Xi Jinping has a secret admirer and Chinese are yearning to find out who he (or she) is.
Since Xi was named Communist Party general secretary in November, a mysterious blogger has been chronicling his every move. There are photographs of Xi on his computer, Xi at a vegetable market, Xi serving meals to the poor, Xi napping on a bus.
Not the most scintillating coverage, but it is remarkable in China, where the movements of the leadership are choreographed down to the last handshake and released only to the tightly controlled state media. Anything on the Internet displeasing to the censors is zapped away faster than you can type the words "Xi Jinping."
The "Study Xi Fan Club" microblog was started Nov. 21, shortly after the 18th Communist Party congress in which Xi was elevated to party secretary. It referred fawningly to the 59-year-old leader as "Pingping" or "Dada," slang for uncle. The frequent postings began to attract notice in early December as they revealed details of Xi's itinerary on a southern tour to Guangdong province before they were reported by the official New China News Agency.
The microblog then went mostly quiet for a few weeks, publishing only photographs plucked from the Internet, some of them years old. Then it began anew, disgorging excruciating details of an official trip to Gansu province:
Feb. 3, 4:50 p.m.: Xi's plane landed in Lanzhou Airport
6:41 p.m.: Xi didn't want to eat the food at the hotel and wanted some cold noodles. But there were too many people at the noodle restaurant.
Feb. 4, 1:27 p.m.: Xi was running around all day from the village to the city. Even our young people can't handle something like this, not to mention a man getting close to his 60s. Uncle Xi, you need to take care of your health!
The detailed coverage has perplexed even China's state-run media, accustomed to having the story to themselves.
"What happened?" asked the state broadcaster CCTV on its microblog Tuesday. "The (fan club) is faster than us and closer than us!"
Speculation is rife. Is the mystery blogger a bodyguard or a political aide? Perhaps a public relations consultant? A man or a woman?
On the initial registration of the account on Sina Weibo, China's largest Internet portal, the blogger put female for gender. But in subsequent exchanges over the Internet with a Shanghai newspaper, the blogger said he is male and offered a few more salient details: He was born in the 1980s and attended Xian Electrical Science University in Shaanxi province.
"I'm not a Communist Party member. I'm not an official. I'm an ordinary person and an office worker," he wrote in a later posting on his site. "Obama, Putin and (Hong Kong Chief Executive) CY Leung and (Taiwanese President) Ma Ying-jeou, they all have their fan clubs, so it is my right to be a fan of Xi Jinping."
Some political analysts believe the blog might be a clunky trial run by the new leadership at using social media. Hu Jintao, whom Xi will replace as president next month, opened an account on Sina Weibo, often called the Twitter of China, but closed it within 48 hours without any postings. The Xi fan club would seem an easier way to dabble in social media with plausible deniability.
"The new leadership is younger, better educated about technology, and they are trying to adjust to new times," said Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
Although the media have changed, the message remains the same, Zhan said. "I don't see any fundamental change as far as freedom of the press goes," he said.