Mostly Men in Black

At Foreign Policy this week, Nels Frye examined civilian official’s curious uniformity of dress at the 18th Party Congress, and the various political pressures that encourage it.

China’s top leaders have been choosing Western business suits over the native-grown Mao suit, or Sun Yat-sen suit as it is known in China (after the founding father of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen), ever since Hu Yaobang, top man in the Communist Party from 1981 until 1987, wore them. China’s most reformist leader, Hu tried to bring accountability and transparency to the government, requiring Han Chinese in Tibet to learn Tibetan and even supporting the use of forks instead of chopsticks. So it’s no surprise that he was the first major Chinese leader to choose a suit and tie. His liberalism brought his ouster, but the preference for Western dress stuck. As the 1980s and 1990s wore on, fewer and fewer photos depicted leaders wearing the Mao suit. Hu Jintao only deployed it for military parades, and it’s unlikely that incoming President Xi Jinping will favor the look, which he might associate with the suffering he and his peers experienced during the Cultural Revolution.

[…] There really may be no good option for officials when it comes to style. Given their fragile relationship with the governed and the high-stakes race with colleagues to achieve higher rank — a race in which success comes from avoiding controversy and building consensus — the current cloaks of invisibility may be their best choice. Hermès ties or Armani suits would probably invite accusations of graft, while Mao suits seem a dangerous throwback. In the end, it’s just better to be boring.

Reactions to some of the outfits at the Two Sessions meetings in March illustrate the point. CPPCC delegate Li Xiaolin, for example, wore a $2,000 salmon pink Emilio Pucci suit, photos of which were shared online paired with a picture of ragged, barefoot rural children. Ministry of Tofu collected over a dozen images of delegates’ luxury clothing and accessories, together with netizens’ scathing comments about how someone wearing a thousand-dollar belt could represent the masses.

While most at the 18th Party Congress dressed to blend in, a few stood out. The standard dress code did not apply to delegates belonging to China’s ethnic minorities, whose traditional dress and headgear made an ostentatious point of the congress’ diversity even as, according to Human Rights Watch’s Nicholas Bequelin, minority representation on the Party’s Central Committee dropped to the lowest level ever.

With much of the congress and its implications thickly wrapped in secrecy, observers drove the reading of sartorial tea leaves to new heights at the unveiling of the new Party leadership on Thursday.




(In his Foreign Policy article, Frye notes the growing popularity of contact lenses and laser eye surgery.)

Colour-coded conformism does not stop at clothing and accessories:








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