Forget the Mao tunics or boxy three-piece Western suits. China’s new leader Xi Jinping is promoting a new look for Chinese officials: crisp, white, button-up shirts worn open at the neck, paired with a smart blazer or a short jacket; no glasses.
It’s not so much a fashion statement as part of his government’s campaign to cut down on the elitism of China’s political culture that Chinese citizens are so sick of. The lavish spending on expensive watches (which has spawned an industry of vigilante watch-spotting), Ferraris, and covering up sex and murder scandals? Xi, in his first policy announcements, all but banished them. And his dress communicates a more subtle idea: Xi and the officials under him will be more like the regular Chinese people they govern.
Now that Xi has been anointed China’s new head (he formally takes the position of party general secretary and president in March), his first major appearances have shown him without a tie, more relaxed and seemingly less distant from the Chinese public. In a visit to Guangdong province, his first outside of Beijing, Chinese state news fawned over how most roads were not closed for his arrival and that he chatted off the cuff with residents.
In Chinese politics, dress has always mattered. After 1949, China’s revolutionary forefather Mao Zedong ordered all men and women to wear “Zhongshan suits,” four-pocketed tunics popular under Sun Yat Sen when the Republic of China was first founded. In the 1980s, Chinese leaders, starting with Hu Yaobing and Jiang Zemin, began wearing Western-style suits, a sign of the country’s economic liberalization. Since then, the uniform has been pretty standard and boring: loose-fitted black suits, white shirts, and Windsor-knotted ties.
Choices in style have always signaled the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) approach to the world and its people. The Western suits were a way for China to help Western leaders overlook the fact that they are working with a communist government. Leaders wear Mao suits almost exclusively at formal military events, a sign of the CCP’s hand over the military and a tribute to the People’s Liberation Army’s role in the revolution that established the People’s Republic. Xi wore a Mao suit at a military appointment in November.
By sporting a more casual look, Xi is also staking out his leadership position. Before the November party congress, his dress was almost indistinguishable from other Chinese officials– a nod of respect to order in a system where officials below the top positions are not supposed to stand out. Ex-CCP secretary Bo Xilai, for instance, wore trendy ties and well-cut suits before he was kicked out of the party.
Moreover, Xi’s new fashion regimen is important because it sets the tone for officials from the members of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee to those at the provincial and local levels. Chinese officials have traditionally followed the lead of their seniors. In the 1990s, Jiang’s oversized, black-rimmed glasses were all the rage, prompting others to adopt the same style until Hu Jintao started the trend of gold-framed lenses.
Looks like Chinese officials are already following Xi’s sartorial lead: