There may be a message behind the new Chinese ambassador's clothing choices

Cong Peiwu wore a black Mao suit to present his letters at Rideau Hall - unlike his predecessor, who wore a business suit. The black Mao suit is enjoying a comeback in China, led by President Xi Jinping. It carries a lot of symbolic meaning and its reappearance says something about where China is going.

Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu's Mao suit follows a trend set by China's paramount leader Xi Jinping

China's new ambassador Cong Peiwu is seen at left after presenting his credentials to Gov.-Gen. Julie Payette, centre, on Nov. 1. (Patrick Doyle/Reuters)

It's a notorious fact of life in politics: women are judged on what they wear and men (mostly) are not.

For men, after all, the western business suit is the uniform of the diplomatic class the world over, and a symbol of power. With a few exceptions (India's "Congress suit", the thawb and keffiyeh in the Arabian peninsula), leaders tend to prefer the nondescript suit and tie.

But the clothing worn by China's new ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, at Rideau Hall on Friday said quite a lot about the man and the country he represents.

When former Chinese ambassador Lu Shaye presented his credentials to then governor general David Johnston in March 2017, the dapper diplomat opted for a dark grey western business suit with a pink tie.

On Friday, his replacement, Cong Peiwu, met Gov. Gen. Julie Payette wearing an austere black Mao suit.

It's an outfit similar to the one worn by China's supreme leader Xi Jinping recently to mark the 70th anniversary of Communist Party rule in China.

"Symbolically, it represents something that is uniquely China, but also uniquely Maoist China," said Lynette Ong, an expert on China at the University of Toronto's Asian Institute and Munk School.

"It says we're returning to Mao-era politics."

Other Chinese diplomats have worn variants of the Mao suit on occasion over the years; mostly they've stuck to western dress. But those who have presented their credentials in recent weeks, in places as far apart as India and Denmark, have done so wearing black Mao suits.

Diplomats and bureaucrats in China are trained to take subtle cues from the top about speech, dress and behaviour. They seem to have received the message that the Mao suit is back.

Guy St-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, describes Cong Peiwu as a man cast in the Xi mould — and not just in the way he dresses.

"I dealt with him, he is a tough negotiator. I had to deal with him to secure the release of Kevin Garrett," St-Jacques told CBC News, citing the case of a Canadian civilian detained in China for almost two years before his release in 2016. "He can be ideological at times. He is somewhat of an introvert."

The uniform of the CCP

The Mao suit was invented not by Chairman Mao, but rather by nationalist leader Sun Yat-Sen. In China, it's known as the "Sun Yat-Sen suit".

But Mao popularized it, making it the uniform of Chinese Communist Party officials and, ultimately, most male Chinese. From the 1950s to the 1980s, variants of the suit became de rigueur for most Chinese males; some versions were suited to the fields and factories, while others were made for the office.

The first Chinese leader to start leaving the Mao suit in the closet was Hu Yaobang, who became general secretary of the Communist Party in 1982. He and his successor Zhao Ziyang, both seen as liberal reformers, began to make more use of suits and ties.

Zhao Ziyang was sidelined following the Tiananmen Square massacre, when more authoritarian leaders retook control of the party. He would spend the rest of his life under house arrest. But his preference for western dress was established and, by the 1990s, the Mao suit was clearly out of style.

Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, who were at the top of the Chinese system from 1989 to 2012, wore western suits as they oversaw the country's transformation from socialism to capitalism and its rapid rise to economic powerhouse status. (Elder statesman Deng Xiaoping never made the change.)

Chinese President Xi Jinping, centre left, with former presidents Jiang Zemin, center right, and Hu Jintao, left, and Premier Li Keqiang watch a parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China in Beijing, Oct. 1. Only Xi wore a Mao suit. (Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press)

At the time, many in the West assumed that China's pursuit of economic reforms would put it firmly on the road to a more open and less authoritarian future.

Then along came Xi.

The Great Leap Backward

By 2018, when President Xi Jinping had a tame party congress abolish term limits and effectively set him up as leader-for-life, the Communist Party's tradition of collective leadership was well and truly dead.

But even as Xi killed off one party tradition, he was trying to resurrect others. One of them was that symbol of conformity and austerity — the Mao suit.

President Xi Jinping wore the Mao suit to meet Queen Elizabeth II at a state banquet at Buckingham Palace in October, 2015. (Dominic Lipinski/Reuters)

The Mao suit consciously dispenses with frivolous western adornments like neckties, and represents the kind of ideal Communist Party official that Chinese propaganda likes to portray: someone incorruptible, with simple tastes, close to the people and impervious to seduction by foreign ideas or trends.

It has re-emerged together with other throwbacks to the Mao era. Xi Jinping's pronouncements on various topics are compiled in a little tome that students and officials are now expected to study, much as they once quoted Mao's "Little Red Book".

Since 2017, "Xi Jinping Thought for the New Era of Socialism With Chinese Special Characteristics" has been part of the Party's constitution — a fourth pillar of its belief system alongside Marxism-Leninism, "Mao Zedong Thought" and "Deng Xiaoping Theory"

Lynette Ong said the rise of Xi as a Mao-style leader represents a reversal of a trend toward stronger institutions in China, and contradicts the country's claim that it is advancing toward the rule of law. She describes it as a process of "de-institutionalization."

"Bypassing the institutions in getting things done, meaning the bureaucracy, the court system, institutions that Deng Xiaoping had so painstakingly built in the '80s and early '90s," she said. "It's not that the institutions are gone, but their primacy has been subverted."

Ong said many of Beijing's policies, such as the government's new push for poverty alleviation, bypass the bureaucracy and are run though "campaign-style" efforts that "seek to motivate people by sheer ideology, almost like the Great Leap Forward."

'Ideology doesn't work anymore'

But "ideology doesn't work anymore," said Ong. She said that China's official media outlets have tried to frame Xi as "the people's leader" and suggest that his one-man rule is guided by his superior understanding of, and concern for, the average citizen.

China's Communist Party faces a stark problem following its embrace of state capitalism. How can it maintain loyalty to a party that clearly has no intention of putting its stated program — communism — into practice?

"Xi Jinping Thought" calls on people to remember the party's socialist ideals, and to live out the socialist virtues of sharing and sacrifice — all while living in thoroughly capitalist modern China. The message is inherently contradictory — which probably explains why Xi's official ideology revolves around national unity and national strength rather than any economic program.

Xi's government has turned more and more to stoking nationalism and fear of outside enemies to encourage obedience and stifle dissent. But loyalty to the nation isn't necessarily the same as loyalty to the Communist Party. Hence the return of party-specific symbols (such as Mao suits), old-style propaganda posters and slogans, and the creation of new revolutionary hero figures for Chinese citizens to model themselves upon.

A strong China

Xi Jinping's nostalgia for old-style messaging may be inherited from his father, who was Chairman Mao's national director of propaganda. It certainly suits his modern quest to maintain absolute power and generate a cult of personality.

Giant propaganda posters have started appearing in public in China again, exhorting Chinese to, for instance, "unite more closely around the party centre with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core," or to "painstakingly strive for the grand victory of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era."

At the heart of "Xi Jinping Thought' is a simple, familiar appeal: Make China Strong Again.

People cross a street beside posters depicting Chairman Mao Zedong, right, and China's President Xi Jinping in Shanghai in 2016. (Aly Song/Reuters)

Xi describes his place in Chinese history in simple terms: Mao freed China from the foreigners, Deng set it on the road to prosperity, and Xi will now see it take its rightful place in the world as a nation that is strong and respected.

Unity is everything to the Communist Party, and the party believes that unity is threatened by dissidence and ethnic tensions in regions like Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong. The Mao suit represents uniformity and obedience — a couture symbol of Xi's one-size-fits-all vision of China.

The party also seeks to crush rivals for the public's allegiance. Xi has waged a fierce campaign of persecution against both Christianity and Islam in China, knocking crosses off churches, demolishing mosques and minarets and turning Islamic cemeteries into parking lots.

In the majority-Muslim Xinjiang region, Xi's government has interned many hundreds of thousands of people in re-education camps.

Lessons for Canada

Ong said foreign governments that deal with China, and foreigners who visit or work in the country, should be aware that — notwithstanding the claims of Chinese officials that the country is becoming more rules-based and transparent — China is actually becoming more arbitrary and opaque.

"A lesser role for institutions could mean the institutions do not follow rules as they are known, or the formal institutional figures may not be the people wielding real power," she said. "Decisions could be made on an informal basis that it becomes challenging for outsiders to discern what the procedures are, or the locus of power is.

'The implication for Canada is to know elite politics in China well, very well — the informal rules of the game, who may be wielding power though not carrying any formal title, and knowing how to 'get things done' in the Chinese idiosyncratic way. It involves high learning costs, but it is also inevitable for us to deal with a rising — and belligerent — power."


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.