The effects of the Chinese government’s ongoing anti-graft campaign were on full display at the start of this week’s “two sessions” government meetings, with everyone from political princelings to celebrity singers working hard to avoid public criticism for wearing expensive outfits.
Convening for their annual meetings this week, the members of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) were notably more scaled back in their ensemble choices than they have been in recent years. As Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign rolls on, Sina Weibo users have been sharper with every highly publicized government session at pointing out the luxury brands being worn by political figures ostensibly living off a public servant’s salary. The toned-down looks are a dramatic divergence from the 2012 sessions, when viral posts on Sina Weibo showed various government officials showing up with bags, belts, and clothing by the likes of Céline, Hermès, Burberry, and Louis Vuitton.
Under the most scrutiny this time around was delegate Li Xiaolin (李小琳), chairwoman of the state-run China Power International Development and daughter of former Chinese Premier Li Peng. When arriving at the Great Hall of the People for the opening ceremony of the 11th National Women’s Congress in Beijing in October 2013, netizens were quick to pounce on a photo of her wearing a $5,670 Roberto Cavalli jacket. This had not been her only unfortunate outfit choice—in 2012, she was pictured in a roughly $2,200 pink Emilio Pucci suit and $1,300 Chanel necklace at the CPPCC conference. However, she finally learned her lesson this time around, opting for a plain beige blazer and prominently displayed canvas sack.
It’s not just political princelings fearing scrutiny this year. Chinese military folk singer Song Zuying (宋祖英) was photographed arriving in military garb, which stood in stark contrast to the fur coat and knee-high Chanel boots that she donned last year. Meanwhile, Tibetan-Chinese folk singer Han Hong (韩红) gained attention for her military gear after being called out for carrying a Bottega Veneta briefcase in 2012.
It wasn’t just fear of the wrath of Sina Weibo users, but of the government itself that reportedly kept members in line. Following the government’s continuous string of new anti-corruption rules since Xi Jinping took power, Chinese media reported that this year’s meetings were subject to several new regulations. These included low-key, buffet-style meals with no alcohol, a ban on tea service in the delegates’ hotel, a ban on the use of smartphones during session, and a requirement that attendees share writing utensils.
Furthermore, there were some pretty detailed instructions on what delegates were allowed to do with their complementary bottles of mineral water: they were asked to mark their bottles with their names to avoid unnamed and unfinished bottles being thrown away, and only those who finished the first bottle of water could receive a second.
Even in this austere atmosphere, some delegates still threw caution to the wind: Actress Song Dandan (宋丹丹) showed up in a jacket with a visible Louis Vuitton logo, prompting Chinese media to compare her style to that of the more patriotic Song Zuying. Song Dandan doesn’t have as much to lose, however—she’s one of the body’s many celebrity members. Song Zuying has a fair amount of star power herself, but she’s also an official member of China’s navy, and has faced rumors of an alleged affair with former president Jiang Zemin (江泽民). Furthermore, she’s known for being introduced to him by Vice-Admiral Wang Shouye (王守业), who is now serving a life sentence for corruption after his conviction in 2005.
This year’s asceticism didn’t keep Chinese netizens from weighing in with opinions, however, and some don’t think that new low-key looks are fooling anyone. According to one user’s blocked comment about Li made available on FreeWeibo:
Li Xiaolin went austere and didn’t dare to show off her jewelry this year at the two sessions. Was she forced go with the flow and pretend? Her efforts in portraying a fresh image do not really help. How can she ask people to deal with austerity as she owns fancy jewelry and wears outfits that are worth thousands of yuan a piece? Apparently corruption problems still exist, and Li is obligated to explain them to the people.
Meanwhile, some commenters showed support for the delegates’ efforts. It’s clear that censors are doing everything they can to emphasize their voices, since the following comment was not deleted from Weibo:
At least she showed her willingness of being able to temporarily abandon the glamour as a star or a boss, and attended the Congress as a typical delegate. I really believe this is a good start.
While officials have likely been nervously watching the anti-corruption campaign continue with fears that they might be the next target in Xi’s political crosshairs, global luxury brands have also been waiting with bated breath to determine how hard of a sales hit they will continue to take. If the atmosphere of year’s National People’s Congress was any indication, it’s not even close to over yet.
Translations by Jasmine Lu.