BEIJING – Yicheng is the sort of nowheresville in the hinterlands of China that few people outside the city have ever heard of (even though its population is 5.6 million). So when Zhou Senfeng was elected mayor last Saturday, he probably wasn't expecting to garner much publicity.
Instead, he has become the target of the latest brouhaha on the Chinese Internet for the crime of ... being too young.
At 29, Mr. Zhou is believed to be the youngest city mayor in China. And in a country where age is respected above all else, his elevation has proved highly controversial.
“I do not think a young man can handle” all the problems facing a city mayor, said one resident of Yicheng, responding to an online poll that attracted more than 20,000 votes.
This runs counter to official policy, however, which is to promote younger people. This is “of great importance for the lasting stability of the Party and the state,” Vice President Xi Jinping said last March.
Though Britain’s Prince Charles memorably described China’s leaders a decade or so ago as “appalling old waxworks,” the ruling Communist party now retires senior officials at 68 (which is probably younger than Prince Charles will be by the time he becomes king.)
Mayor Zhou’s youth is not on his side in the public eye, however, not least because people here find it hard to believe that someone that young could rise so fast through the bureaucracy without under-the-table help from well-placed friends.
He was officially reported to have been elected in a secret ballot of the city's People's Congress.
But not everyone believes that. “Zhou, who served in the government for only five years, must have connections to reach such a position so soon,” commented one critic responding to the sina.com poll.
“If he had been elected by ordinary people, you should be proud of him,” wrote another anonymous poster on the popular Tianya website. “But he wasn’t.”
Zhou’s protestations in an e-mail to Xinhua, the official news agency, that he is the son of peasants, has not assuaged his online assailants, nor reporters for the mainstream press. The Beijing News put a reporter on the story: He came up with apparent evidence of plagiarism when Zhou was a student at the prestigious Tsinghua University.
Internauts found, and posted, photos of Zhou accompanying Prime Minister Wen Jiabao through a muddy field two years ago; the young mayor is mocked for having a flunky hold an umbrella over his head, while Mr. Wen carried his own.
Zhou himself is staying out of the limelight for the time being, and playing humble. “I should say the concerns about my inexperience are reasonable,” he said in his e-mail to Xinhua. “But what young officials need is a stage where they can perform.”