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.