Dispatch

Men in Black

Inside the fashion of Chinese politics.

BEIJING — Much has changed in China over the past decade, from the tens of millions of former peasants who are now members of the middle class, to the Prada, Hermès, and Gucci boutiques that now crowd the malls of Beijing and Shanghai -- but not the fashion stylings of China's top leaders. The single-breasted navy two-button suits, semi-spread-collar white shirts, and unmemorable ties in a Windsor knot remain obligatory. Almost without exception, top leaders still sport iconic jet-black dye jobs, intended to conceal age just as the boxy suits conceal differences in physique. At a time of transition, the Chinese Communist Party is all the more determined to show unity, continuity, and commitment to stability, making sartorial adventurism inappropriate.

If anything, top leaders are even less stylish now. Gone is the only item with personality, the one that might have endeared China's heavyweights to hipsters in Brooklyn's Williamsburg, London's Shoreditch, or Beijing's 798: the huge, square nerd glasses reminiscent of Henry Kissinger that are now de rigueur all over the hipster world. These define Wu Bangguo, since 2002 the second-ranking man in the Politburo Standing Committee, China's top decision-making body. He will step down this week and take with him the brow-line frames. Before him, former Premier Li Peng, the leader most associated with the Tiananmen Square massacre, wore nearly identical glasses, which meshed strikingly with his bushy eyebrows. Most memorable are the enormous tortoise-shell glasses of the jovial former president, Jiang Zemin. Chinese today view the huge glasses as more old-mannish or, at best, professorial and serious -- certainly not retro chic. Still, it's a shame; the over-the-top frames were all that prevented China's leaders from achieving an utterly unnoticeable look.

Outgoing President Hu Jintao's specs are large, though in a more subtle wire frame. A few of the men likely to reach the Standing Committee when Hu and most of his colleagues step down on Nov. 14 wear smallish, contemporary, very unremarkable frames, but most must have gotten laser surgery, have perfect eyesight, or are wearing contacts. But the absence of nerd glasses, or indeed of any stylish flourish, marks the current leaders as contemporary men rather than holdovers from a previous generation. It also puts the new emperors in the dullest camouflage possible: nine (or seven) nearly identical men in suits.

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.

The preference for Western attire is in line with the economic openness that has brought tremendous growth to China. It represents a hand extended to the West, an interest in modernization, an "open for business" sign, an indication that China is eager to rise to the top by accepting much of the prevailing world order. The message is different from that of leaders from countries like India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria, who occasionally choose distinctly non-Western dress. "Wearing a Mao suit reminds foreigners too explicitly that they are facing officials of the Communist Party," says a fashion designer in Beijing, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of speaking about top leaders. "Besides," she jokes, "at the end of a meal, you can open the buttons on a Western suit. Mao suits are always worn buttoned up to the collar." (And current leaders, she notes, are somewhat portlier than their predecessors.)

Some Chinese citizens see their leaders' Western dress as representing China's lack of a distinct style and voice on the world stage. An IT salesman whose girlfriend works in fashion PR and who asked to remain anonymous wishes the leaders would wear Chinese clothing, but "unfortunately, they have to appear modern and there is no modern Chinese form of dressing or sense of etiquette." A Beijing resident who runs a business renovating high-end villas, often for government officials, observes that modern China lacks its own personality: "It can only absorb from others, but this also makes us better able to survive and prosper."

High-ranking officials' casual wear also lacks character. When they need to appear one with the masses, a short-sleeve white dress shirt, usually tucked in, functions as the summer uniform. Winter comes with a lumpy navy puffy coat, though the leaders do wear wool overcoats when being officially photographed, especially on the tarmac when landing in foreign countries. Autumn and spring bring a dark, waist-length jacket in some generic synthetic material. This jacket is more notable for all the things that it isn't -- a blazer, a leather jacket, traditional Chinese dress -- than for any cultural associations it does have. Given its cheap material, dumpy cut, and grim color pallet of dull gray or black, this item really does seem to say "everyman."

These uniforms are the safest options. Lack of personality is precisely what Communist Party leaders are going for. Heads of autocratic countries who have dressed in more interesting ways have not been meeting good ends of late. Just ask flamboyant ex-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who favored tailored pinstripe suits paired with loud silk pocket squares, and former Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi, famous for his shirts with custom prints of the African continent. Even former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a man with more subtle taste, had his name woven into the pinstripes of his bespoke suits, a message that the public must have read as "I pilfer national resources." Disgraced Chongqing Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai, the most colorful Communist Party elite personality since Mao, wore well-cut, three-button suits and favored a very large tie knot that he sometimes even dimpled. These are hardly extravagant sartorial flourishes, but with his charisma, imposing physique, and expressive, handsome face, Bo stood out against the boring backdrop of his colleagues. Like an entrepreneur or Wall Street financier surrounded by dowdy Midwestern middle managers, Bo was pretty enthralling, according to a New York-based consultant who frequently met with him.

Whatever combination of factors brought about Bo's demise, his good looks could not have helped. His appearance was one of many factors that made him appealing to the masses, underscoring his demagogic persona. Still, the citizenry do not find the facelessness of other top figures endearing. Several young Chinese have told me that their leaders dress badly or even in a way that "embarrasses" China. Given the uncontroversial -- if not outright dowdy -- nature of their attire, these reactions seem more linked to the unreachability of the leadership than actual dislike of their dress.

But, ironically, when anyone associated with government does dress distinctively, the reaction -- on the Internet, at least -- is usually outrage. Li Xiaolin, daughter of Li Peng (of the nerd glasses), one of China's most successful businesswomen and delegate to China's legislative body, the National People's Congress, has been criticized for her collection of Chanel, Hermès, and other expensive foreign brands. The outcry over the watch collection of Shaanxi transportation official Yang Dacai has also led to an unofficial ban on expensive watches for anyone in government, thus eliminating one of the few ways an official could express a degree of individuality. "Officials are the main VIPs at all the luxury stores in China," says the Beijing designer, but their spending power must be used on behalf of family members, similar to the way Premier Wen Jiabao's influence brought wealth only for his wife and relatives, and not himself. This speaks to perhaps the main reason officials cannot put on much of a sartorial display: It would be an immediate reminder that official families usually have much greater wealth than their low formal salaries would allow.

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.

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Dispatch

Stardust Across the Pond

Can Obama's magic rub off on David Cameron?

LONDON — Opinion polls conducted around the world in the weeks before the U.S. presidential election reported just the kind of result you'd expect from such surveys: Except in Pakistan (not big fans of drones, them), most people overseas desperately desired Barack Obama's reelection and deplored the prospect of a President Mitt Romney. The Republican brand remains tainted by its unavoidable association with George W. Bush's failed presidency while, overseas at least, Obama retains some of the hope and glamour with which he swept into the White House four years ago.

Few capitals welcomed Obama's victory more keenly than London. David Cameron may lead a Conservative Party that has traditionally seen the Republican Party as its cousin, but the British prime minister made little effort to hide the fact he was supporting Obama's reelection. The official Downing Street Twitter feed was quick off the mark: "Warm congratulations to my friend @BarackObama. Look forward to continuing to work together." Cameron, who was on a trade mission to Gulf states while Americans were voting, told reporters traveling with him: "I am delighted with the result." Just in case the message had been missed, Cameron's press team released photographs of the prime minister telephoning the newly reelected president on Wednesday, Nov. 7.

So these are changed times. The Republican Party is now so toxic that even British Conservatives are wary of being seen to be too closely associated with their erstwhile transatlantic cousins. Pro-Republican voices in Westminster are now, at least at senior levels, in a minority. It did not help that Romney botched his trip to London this summer. Even without that, however, the known unknowns of a second Obama term were seen as preferable to the unknown unknowns that would have accompanied Romney on his journey to Washington.

Once not so long ago, this would have been considered inconceivable. U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher thought themselves kindred spirits whose joint mission was, in part, to revive their respective countries' morale at home while projecting strength overseas. And Thatcher plainly preferred Reagan's company to that of many of her own Conservative colleagues.

Their successors proved almost as close. President George H.W. Bush and Prime Minister John Major were pulled close by the need to respond to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait -- so close, in fact, that Bush's reelection campaign felt able to ask the Conservatives whether they had any dirt on Bill Clinton, dating from his time as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University. The Tories were happy to look on Bush's behalf but found nothing and succeeded only in ensuring Major and Clinton had a cool relationship when the Comeback Kid from Hope (Arkansas) won the White House in 1992.

Opposites have, of course, attracted before in this old so-called "special relationship." George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair were not obvious soul mates, but regardless of their differences on domestic politics, their responses to the post-9/11 world were instinctive and, in many respects, close to identical. Indeed, Blair came to admire Bush's clarity and ability to stick to a decision. It contrasted with his experience with Bill Clinton -- even though, in many policy respects, Clinton and Blair were comrades who viewed political and policy problems in much the same manner. While Bush and Blair were close on foreign-policy matters, it was the Tories who learned from Bush's "compassionate conservatism" agenda, which helped influence Cameron's own modernization project. That was then, however, before Bush's reputation became so poisonous.

So the Cameron-Obama relationship is unusual. It is hard to recall a transatlantic bromance like it. Not since World War II has a Conservative prime minister lavished such praise and attention on a Democratic president.

Not that it has all been one-way traffic. Obama hosted Cameron this March and, amid the usual Washington hoopla, took Cameron on Air Force One to Ohio, where the pair attended an NCAA basketball tournament game between Mississippi Valley State University and Western Kentucky University. It made for nice photographs on either side of the Atlantic.

If that pleased the image guys in each leader's camp, then the praise showered upon Obama by Cameron was, even by the standards of White House dinners, on the effusive side of gushing. Obama, Cameron said, "has pressed the reset button on the moral authority of the entire free world." Cameron praised Obama's "enormous courage," his "wisdom," and his "strength." According to Cameron, "the president says what he will do and he sticks to it." Although some commentators on the Tory right warned that the prime minister's enthusiasm for Obama was a mistake, this proved a minority opinion.

Large parts of the U.S.-Britain relationship -- notably in defense and intelligence matters -- hardly depend upon the identities of the president and prime minister, respectively. Nevertheless, it helps if there can be some kind of magical chemistry between them. It is clear that Obama, for instance, enjoys a better, more relaxed relationship with Cameron than he did with Gordon Brown.

As far as Downing Street is concerned, the Obama brand is hip, urban, modern -- the opposite of the Tories' fusty, aristocratic, rural image. Cameron, whose first task as leader of the party was to modernize its image, sees a close relationship with Obama as part of that still-incomplete process. If Romney had prevailed on Nov. 6, the Tory right would have argued that British Conservatives should ape their American cousins and move sharply to the right. Cameron, head of an already unpopular coalition government, could do without that kind of pressure from within his own party.

More than anything, however, senior Conservatives interpret Obama's victory as a sign that even in the midst of a sluggish economic recovery and amid much grumbling and discontent, incumbents can still prevail. There is hope!

Obama's victory means other presidents and prime ministers in Europe can dare to hope that incumbency does not mean the end of one's political career. Obama won despite Americans' feeling less than optimistic and with an unemployment rate nudging 8 percent. Here again, Obama offers a measure of hope to his counterparts elsewhere.

It may be that this is a false hope. Few European politicians have Obama's political gifts or command any comparable sense of loyalty. No surprise, then, that since the Great Meltdown on Wall Street four years ago, no fewer than 17 governments across Europe have been defeated. With a trend like that you clutch any scrap of hope you can get.

In any case, Cameron may benefit from Obama's second term in more practical terms. In the first place, Obama won reelection by successfully persuading many voters that he needed a second term to finish cleaning up the mess he inherited from his hapless predecessor. We can expect Cameron to make a similar case at the next British election.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, arguments in Washington will soon move in ways helpful to the British prime minister. It is already clear that the long-term public debt and the need to balance the budget will, with entitlement reform, be a large part of Obama's second term. If some grand bargain is reached marrying spending cuts with some tax increases, there will be much rejoicing in London too.

Why so? Because the British media's fascination with American politics ensures that arguments in Washington aren't just theater in Britain but help inform and influence Britain's own domestic policy arguments. Obama and Cameron may have pursued contrasting approaches until now (the one favoring "stimulus," the other "austerity"), but their approaches are soon likely to converge. Cameron has raised taxes and cut spending and paid a political price for doing so. Although the American and British situations are different and parallels should not be drawn too firmly, it remains the case that if Washington embraces even modest spending restraints, Cameron will try to use this to his own advantage. The symbolism may matter more than the actual degree of belt-tightening. If so, it will not hurt Cameron to be able to say, "And by the way, this is what the Obama administration is doing too…"

All this being the case, you can begin to see why the Obama stardust retains its power overseas and why even British Tories were keen to see him reelected. That, of course, is also a commentary upon and reflection of how far outside the international conservative mainstream the Republican Party has drifted. The Cameron-Obama romance may seem an unusual alliance, but it has proved useful to both men -- and outside America, the Obama aura continues to work its magic. No wonder the British prime minister didn't bother to hide his pleasure when America granted Barack Obama four more years.

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