Chinese president Hu Jintao is a stranger and sartorial extravagance or elegant eccentricity, sticking to outfits as conservative as his leadership style. But is the staid Hu being strategic – or just behind the times?
At the Olympic opening ceremony this August, Chinese president Hu Jintao gave a stiff smile before taking his VIP seat in the Bird’s Nest stadium. Hu looked out of place in the sleek venue: his black suit- pads made his shoulders sit at sharp 90-degree angles; the red tie was just like the ones worn on numerous public appearances; his hair, parted to the right and doused in hairspray, was sculpted in the usual mould of Chinese politicians. In the sweltering stadium, China’s president stared straight ahead, stirring only to wave, stiffly, from time to time.
Hu assumed the presidency in 2003 amid speculation he’d be a reformer – but nothing has been further from the truth. The black suit, the immovable hair, and the red tie are mainstays – this is a leader who has played it safe his whole career. He doesn’t have to care about votes and apparently needs no sense of style either. While most of China has made leaps in fashion in the past two decades, Hu remains stubbornly behind.
“Hu’s style is very much like his governance: nothing clashing, hewing to the tried and true,” says Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based political analyst. The Wall Street Journal speculated that president Hu, like many Chinese politicians, dyes his hair black – there’s not a single white hair on his 65-year-old head. Unlike in the US, where presidents Bush and Clinton let their hair go grey in office, “the most senior leaders [of China] include nine men with nary a white strand of hair,” wrote the paper.
As bland as his sartorial style is, Hu has come a long way from his recent predecessors. Certainly, Hu’s suits are an improvement over former president Jiang Zemin, who often sported trousers halfway between his midriff and chest.
By contrast, Mao Zedong had a style of his own; after all, how many other leaders have given their names to a whole category of suits? President Hu has donned the military-style “Mao suit” on rare occasions, but without the girth of Chairman Mao or the funky hairdo of North Korea’s supreme leader, he looks like a kid playing dressing-up.
01 Hair – Most Chinese leaders don’t grey gracefully and prefer to turn to hair dye. Speculation is that Hu Jintao is in this camp.
02 Suit – Hu ditches the traditional Mao suit in favour of the West’s standard garb. Meant to communicate he’s in line with modern thinking.
03 Tie – Even if Hu is modern, he is a patriotic nationalist who stands up to the West, as evidenced by his choice of tie colour – “Commie red”.
04 Glasses – An improvement on former president Jiang Zemin’s enormous spectacles, but still on the large side.
The Games may have gone off without a hitch, but it will take a lot more to turn around China’s less than shiny image. China has one of the most negative images ever measured in the Anholt Nation Brands Index. This is odd, because economic growth usually goes hand in hand with enhanced reputation, yet thanks to Tibet, foreign policy and dodgy consumer products, China has shed 4 per cent of its “brand equity” during the past four years. Governments must ask: “what can we do next?” A successful Olympics is the start of the process, not the end. And it takes more than sporting events to build a reputation: policy, products, people, culture, tourism and business have to work together. The globalisation of media has made propaganda virtually impossible, and only real changes sustained over the very long term can turn around a national image – especially one as bad as China’s. Yet it’s not an impossible task: Japan and Germany both suffered from worse images than China’s half a century ago, and are now among the most admired nations on earth. — Simon Anholt runs the Nation Brands Index
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