Communist Party of China Fashion Expo (event)
"Comrade Mao taught us that we should not engage in what he called wastefulness or extravagance. As we have learned, however, extravagance in the furtherance of socialism and in the revolutionary struggle is not wastefulness, but precisely an assertion of the confidence of the proletariat in its ability to overcome all obstacles." - Zhong Lanfen, former Communist Party Chief of Tianjin, at the Communist Party of China Fashion Expo in 2009.
It is no secret that the ruling class of a given country can have a disproportionately large impact on the styles and fashions of its citizenry at large. Famous examples include the Nehru jacket, Jacqueline Kennedy's much-imitated bouffant, and the increase in cosmetic jowl-augmentation surgery during the Nixon administration in the United States. The practice of modeling oneself after a given political leader dates back to at least the time of Ancient Egypt when the pharaoh Akhenaten -- who suffered from minor physical deformities as a result of a still-unknown condition -- broke with tradition and had both his defects (and those of his family) represented in official depictions. This inspired legions of sycophants and loyalists -- totally unprompted by the pharaoh -- to also have themselves depicted in this fashion on their tombs and other funerary arrangements.
The question as to whether or not a man instinctively imitates his betters is not really within the scope of this essay, but the maxim that says "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" does seem to be true in a political sense. It should come as no surprise, then, that a one-party state with a very tight grip on the leash of a nation's conscience which attempts to dictate what is considered politically acceptable in terms of art, culture, and discourse should extend this notion to things as seemingly insignificant as clothes. This does in fact seem to be the case in the People's Republic of China with the annual Communist Party of China Fashion Expo (CPCFE).
Understanding the CPCFE is difficult but comes to make perfect sense when one considers the history of the event, the context in which it is held, and the changing role of China in the world's affairs over the last 30 or so years. The genesis of the CPCFE can be found in the Cultural Revolution. In modern China, there are extremely ambiguous feelings about the Cultural Revolution, with the official party line being something between a condemnation and a denial of its horrible scope. I would say that I won't go into unnecessary details about the story behind the Cultural Revolution, but to fail to do so would be to fail to live up to the expectations of my readers, so I will attempt to briefly recapitulate it for those unfamiliar with it.
The People's Republic of China (PRC) was formed in 1949 with the final victory of the communist forces led by Mao Zedong over the nationalist army led by crypto-fascist Kuomintang commander Chiang Kai-shek. After World War II, China was a mess: economically destitute, large portions of the population killed by Imperial Japanese soldiers, and politically disunified. Mao, building on the template of Leninism, thought that a third-world country like China could rise to become a great world power, but that this would require several waves of extremely painful and traumatic modernization. The Great Leap Forward was the first example of this, but the Cultural Revolution was the most significant. The Cultural Revolution consumed the final ten years of Mao's rule as paramount leader of the PRC. He had convinced himself, perhaps with some basis in truth or perhaps not, that members of his government were conspiring to undo the gains of the Chinese revolution and that they would reinstitute capitalism and open the country to foreign exploitation again. His dictate was that these elements of society ought to be purged through violent and systematic class struggle. Nobody was immune to this: friend and foe alike were equally persecuted as Mao railed against enemies both real and imagined. To be seen to be sympathetic to a "counter-revolutionary" or "reactionary" idea or person was sufficient cause to be killed or severely injured. Conservative estimates place the number of people killed in the Cultural Revolution as being somewhere between 1 and 3 million. Most of the violence was perpetrated not by the government but rather by young, militant students. The Cultural Revolution as such ended after the death of Mao in 1976, but its effects are felt today in China in a subtle way. The government acknowledges that the event occurred and that it was not necessarily a good thing, but discussion of it is almost completely taboo in Chinese society, meaning that no sort of cultural catharsis is forthcoming.
It was during the Cultural Revolution that the fashions of Mao and his chief lieutenants first became a subject of conversation. Gossipping about what a person was wearing was of course (rightly, I believe) felt to be a petty, bourgeois activity that was discouraged. By the late 1960s, however, meetings of the Politburo were scrutinized by certain members of the public to try to ascertain what was considered sufficiently modern socialist garb. After Mao's death and in the wake of the consequent political upheavals in China, Chinese fashion was not cohesive and there were very serious concerns about what would be considered acceptable to wear. A big character poster (a usually short message written in huge letters on the side of a public building) in Guangxi ominously asked "IS GREY THE NEW BROWN?," the implication being that the drab color preferred by CPC functionaries was equivalent to the violent, brown-shirted Sturmabteilung (SA) organization that existed during the formative years of the Nazi Party. This poster (whose author has never been publicly known) makes another subtle political point as well: the SA was purged by Hitler in 1934 in a violent internal suppression known as the Night of the Long Knives; could other elements of the CPC be far behind? The fabric of society -- both literal and figurative -- seemed to be coming undone.
By the 1980s, however, the leadership of the CPC recognized that they were not just the ideological guides of the state, but also the socio-cultural leaders as well. With the residual effects of the Cultural Revolution still being felt, Communist Party authorities let it be known to state media that covering the fashion trends of the bureaucratic elite would be tolerated as long as it were presented in a light-hearted and not particularly serious way. The goal was pretty simple and was ironically borrowed from the bourgeois enemy they had previously sought to annihilate. Seemingly trivial concerns about things like what color someone is wearing or the style of coat they have on were actually designed to be conversation-starters that would put citizens' minds elsewhere. While it would be impossible to fully blot out lingering questions about the Cultural Revolution and its effects on domestic policy in China, comments about the utilitarian nature of Comrade Hiu's plain white shirt could possibly have the effect of creating a new set of concerns for the average Chinese citizen, namely "what should I wear?"
At first, the notion of what we now know as the Communist Party of China Fashion Expo existed solely in the realm of media analysis of various policy meetings. It was almost an aside; common comments from the early days of this effect would be typified by a somewhat famous statement by Luo Jing, one of the leading personalities of China Central Television, who remarked of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in 1986 "while Comrade Mao may have helped make China red, you will observe that Comrade Deng is accenting it with a black that is as elegant as his reinvestment in Chinese labor and enterprise." The melding of politics and fashion was nothing new, of course, but the intentional nature of the spectacle added a new dimension not previously seen in the West, let alone the East.
The first official CPCFE occurred in 1999. It is timed to coincide with the day before the first meeting of the Politburo each year. Ostensibly, the leaders of the People's Republic of China arrive in Beijing to settle in a day early before the serious talks begin, but the state media treats these arrivals like a red carpet event similar to the Academy Awards in the United States. Chinese media agencies are "notified" that the officials will be arriving at almost exactly the same time and that they will be available to answer a few questions about their attire. The event is covered by the foreign press primarily in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan with occasional Chinese-language outlets from countries like the United States or Canada invited to attend, but only designated agencies are permitted to ask questions of the officials. While the Chinese political class is usually famous for its unity and the excellent presentation it puts forward, the first Communist Party of China Fashion Expo lasted only a few minutes and came across as forced and awkward. General Zhang Wannian, already at an advanced age at the time of the first event, was not wholly cognizant of the point of the CPCFE as demonstrated when he fumbled an answer about his uniform, remarking laconically, "it's green, I had thought that much would be clear." After careful study of the manner in which such things are publically consumed in the West, the 2000 CPCFE was organized significantly better and questions and answers seemed to have been rehearsed to give a smoother impression of the event. More recent CPCFEs appear to be more impromptu and relaxed, giving observers the impression that the leadership of the party feels more at ease with the concept without the need for much coaching beforehand.
While the CPCFE is primarily intended for the domestic Chinese audience, it does not exist in a vacuum. As China has grown in both wealth and worldwide influence, its leaders have taken advantage of luxuries once not even available to luminaries such as Mao or Zhou Enlai. In America, we divide economic class into two broad groupings: white collar (professional, non-physical work such as investment banking or real estate) and blue collar (demanding physical labor like manufacturing or logging). In China, a third term exists: the black collar. While both white and blue collar classes exist in China, the black collar class is comprised primarily of the Chinese ultra nouveau riche, that portion of the economy that exists in a somewhat nebulous zone between the state bureaucracy and big business. The black collar class in China engages in what we might call conspicuous consumption, wearing the finest clothes by designers such as Armani, Versace, and Hermès. The meaning behind this particular demonstration of personal wealth is not completely clear, but it seems to be directed more at the Western powers than at Chinese citizens: this new generation of Chinese leaders wants to show the world that it can afford such luxuries and that it ought to be considered as being on equal ground.
Indeed, the genius of the CPCFE is that it appears on the surface to be vapid and insignificant but that it is really a profound insight into the guiding theory that the leadership of the CPC wants to get across each year. For example, in 2004, five of the Politburo members interviewed glowingly described their ensembles that had been created by Russian fashion designer Valentin Yudashkin in terms such as "sleek" and "reliable." Later that year, Russia and China signed a massive deal to build an oil pipeline stretching from Siberia to the Pacific Ocean with China having the right to set up an oil spur somewhere along the way for their personal use at a discounted rate. The following year, when the future of the pipeline appeared to be in danger due to the collapse of Yukos in Russia, Yudashkin was described by one party member as "old news," and that the most exciting fashion designers for the new year were coming from the Middle East, specifically the "Persian style"; construction on the pipeline resumed in 2006. For this and other reasons, the CPCFE is keenly watched by foreign Sinologists for clues to future Chinese policy.
The CPCFE has not been without controversy, however. Zhong Lanfen, quoted at the beginning of this essay, was in 2011 forcibly retired from the party and indefinitely sent off for what was called "vacation-style therapy" due to an influence-peddling scandal. She had apparently solicited designers for free clothing and monetary kickbacks in exchange for helping to secure the construction of factories in her region on favorable terms. Records show frequent trips to Italy and France and that she had several personal meetings with former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi has been uncharacteristically restrained in discussing his association with Ms. Zhong (who is an attractive woman in her late 30s), directing all such inquiries to the Italian consulate in Beijing, which reminds the inquirer that since Mr. Berlusconi is no longer in office, it has no standing to answer questions relating to the nature of his relationship with Ms. Zhong.
What the future holds for the CPCFE is unknown, but it can be fairly reliably assumed that it will continue to be a mainstay of Chinese state media for at least a few more years, although it clearly has a limited shelf-life. With the growing influence of Chinese social networking sites like Sina Weibo, it seems likely that the public discussion will inevitably trend more toward the subtle messages than the clothes being worn themselves. This of course defeats the purpose of the CPCFE internally, and there are concerns that the CPCFE will be viewed as tawdry or garish and thus hurt Chinese morale. For the time being, however, we will have to wait until 2013 to see what the black collar class of the world's largest classless society will be wearing.