Defying decades of political tradition, China’s most powerful man is going gray.
Silver streaks in President Xi Jinping’s hair spotted at the annual national legislative session, which began March 5, have captured attention and stirred speculation among China watchers as to what the radical change might mean.
In official portraits and in public, top Chinese leaders — who are usually in their 60s or older — have long sported impeccable jet-black hair.
Delegates follow a speech at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 9, 2010. Leaders have long sported impeccable jet-black hair. Credit: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
The apparent use of hair dye is a custom dating back to the era of Mao Zedong, Communist China’s founding father. But the trend has become more pronounced since the 1990s.
Top leaders want to be seen as “larger than life … and appear to have a faultless appearance,” said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a longtime analyst of Chinese politics.
“Xi Jinping wants to debunk this tradition to make himself look more like an ordinary Chinese citizen, a man of the people.”
A softened image
This populist image has been carefully cultivated by the Chinese leader since he came to power in late 2012.
His poverty alleviation initiatives and massive anti-corruption campaign, which has thus far netted more than a million Communist officials, have made him popular.
However, a constitutional amendment that last year paved the way for Xi to rule for life, and an increasingly over-the-top propaganda blitz touting his leadership, have proved controversial.
“(Not dyeing his hair) could be a strategy to diminish criticism that he’s building a Mao-style personality cult,” said Lam. “This is a kind of camouflage strategy to make him look less aristocratic, in the Chinese sense.”
Amid a slowing economy and rising tensions with the United States, analysts also see the embrace of his natural hair color as a way to dispel periodic rumors about internal challenges to Xi’s monopoly on power.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and other officials stand during the opening session of the National People’s Congress at the Great Hall of the People on March 5, 2019 in Beijing, China. Credit: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images
“It’s a sign of Xi’s increasing self-confidence,” said Pin Ho, founder and chief executive of Mirror Media Group, a New York-based publishing group focused on Chinese politics.
“There is no real threat to his power among the political elite,” he added. “Xi is trying to project strength and show that he can look the way he wants.”
Leaders have traditionally dyed their hair black as a kind of “conformity to a single regimented style as a sign of unison and agreement,” observed Hung Huang, a prominent media personality who grew up among the Communist elites in Beijing in the 1960s and ’70s. It’s one that Xi — who now clearly stands above everyone else — no longer needs, she said.
The topic appears to have quickly become off-limits on Chinese social media, however, with searches on “Xi Jinping’s gray hair” returning no posts or images on a number of platforms.
Observers can already count a growing number of senior officials showing their natural hair color in public. The current gray-hair list includes two of China’s most visible figures on the global stage: Vice Premier Liu He, who has been shuttling between Beijing and Washington for the China-US trade talks, and Wang Yi, the country’s foreign minister.
Xi Jinping wears a windbreaker to an event held at Beijing’s China Agricultural University in September 2012. Credit: Lan Hongguang/AP
And if past leaders dyed their hair black to illustrate their health and vigor, 65-year-old Xi, doesn’t seem to have such a need, as one of the youngest Chinese heads state in recent years.
“I don’t think youth was something that he was afraid to lose,” said Hung. “It’s highly possible that such a relaxation of rigidity in (politicians’) style, especially to show a bit weariness, is planned and orchestrated to win some sympathy, which they might need.”
In the opaque world of Chinese politics, leaders’ hairstyle and sartorial choices can act as a window into the Communist Party’s inner workings.
When officials ditched their Mao suits in favor of Western-style suits in the 1980s, it was an unequivocal message about the country’s opening to the outside world. Leaders without military backgrounds revert to olive-colored Mao suits when meeting generals and soldiers to bolster their revolutionary creed.
In recent years, leaders have attended international gatherings wearing “tangzhuang” — a traditional-looking Chinese jacket with a straight collar — to underline cultural heritage and confidence. Black windbreakers continue to be the attire of choice for officials visiting ordinary citizens, showing their affinity to the masses.