The must-see tourist sights of the Chinese capital form a grandiose circuit: the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and, for early birds willing to brave long lines, the mausoleum of Mao Zedong.

But there is a new stop on Beijing’s sightseeing loop: an unassuming fast-food restaurant on the west side that has become a pilgrimage destination for fans of the president, Xi Jinping. It was here last year that Mr. Xi riveted the nation after he made a seemingly off-the-cuff visit to the Qingfeng Steamed Bun Shop, paid his own way and then carried his tray to one of the restaurant’s cheap folding tables.

“We’re following in the footsteps of our great leader,” Bai Henglin, a 29-year-old chauffeur, gushed as he took a selfie with his $3.50 Presidential Combo meal (steamed buns and a bowl of pig liver stew). “Out-of-town visitors who come to Beijing and don’t stop here will regret it.”

The restaurant’s morning-till-night crowds are just one barometer of the adulation directed at Mr. Xi since he assumed power in 2012. His serene smile graces ornamental plates and good luck trinkets, and a book of his thoughts on governing has been translated into eight languages with 17 million copies reportedly sold or given away. His avuncular charms have inspired songs and poems celebrating “Papa Xi” as a virtuous husband, a friend to the toiling peasant and an enemy of the corrupt.

“The sons and daughters of China follow you forward hand in hand,” goes one soft-rock paean to Mr. Xi that has been downloaded thousands of times. “Great general secretary, beloved President Xi, the Chinese nation is sure to rejuvenate because we have you.”

Not since Mao dominated the nation with his masterly blend of populism, fervor and fear has a Chinese leader commanded so much public awe. Deng Xiaoping was a formidable power, but he disavowed the mania of the Mao era. Since then, fawning public displays over political leaders have been taboo. Mr. Xi’s immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao, made a virtue of dull self-effacement.

Not Papa Xi.

Some of his appeal stems from his war on corruption and from feel-good sloganeering like the “Chinese Dream,” his pitch for a rejuvenated, powerful nation. But the adoration has also been primed by relentless propaganda portraying Mr. Xi as an indomitable alloy of Superman and Everyman who holds up his own umbrella, kicks soccer balls and knows how to fire a rifle.

During his first two years in power, his name appeared in the main, eight-page section of People’s Daily, the main Communist Party newspaper, more than twice as often as Mr. Hu’s did during his first two years, according to the China Media Project of the University of Hong Kong.

“You can see the whole Chinese propaganda machine has geared up to promote his personality,” said Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who monitors developments in Chinese media and censorship for the website China Digital Times. “It’s become over the top.”

While many Chinese welcome a strong, plain-speaking leader, critics say the zealous promotion of Mr. Xi has begun to show some of the hallmarks of a personality cult, alarming those who see echoes of the hubris that engulfed Mao. Continue Reading >>

Written by ANDREW JACOBS and CHRIS BUCKLEY for The New York Times on March 7, 2015