BEIJING • She is only 10, but Dai Jingya has already come face to face with more heads of state than most people will in their lifetimes. She has rubbed shoulders with Chinese President Xi Jinping four times, and greeted the leaders of Singapore, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Denmark.
Jingya is one of a group of children selected from Beijing schools to welcome the constant stream of foreign dignitaries coming to Beijing, alongside the People's Liberation Army soldiers and a host of top Chinese officials.
Under Mao Zedong, smiling children in red neckerchiefs were frequently on hand to welcome foreign leaders. Two years after his death in 1976, China stopped organising citizens to line the roads. In 1989, the protocol department ordered that students would no longer take part in welcoming state visitors. But Mr Xi has revived the practice after taking power in 2012.
Before any important person arrives, teachers drill the students on when to begin cheering and when to stop. Then in closely choreographed performances, Mr Xi and his guest first review the honour guard at the Great Hall of the People. Next, the pair will walk past the phalanx of around 40 children, who on cue, burst into ecstatic screams of "Welcome to China" in Mandarin and English, hopping and waving China's flag in one hand, and the visitor's emblem in the other.
During the welcome event for Singapore's president, the normally solemn Mr Xi cracked a smile and waved as he walked past the children.
Jingya said: "I really like coming here to welcome the foreigners, as we get to miss school, and sometimes I get to see myself on the news." But she has yet to glimpse United States President Barack Obama, she said, adding that he was the leader she wanted "to see the most".