Is grey the new black? Five Politburo members snub a dyeing tradition

Five Politburo members have grey hair in their official portraits, in a departure from the tradition of Chinese leaders sporting mops of shiny black hair

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 November, 2017, 9:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 November, 2017, 11:18pm

For years the challenges of high office have turned the locks of Western politicians grey. Now, after a decade-long bias against publicly sporting salt-and-pepper hairstyles, China’s political leaders are discovering the value of keeping a little silver on top.

At least five of the newly elected Politburo’s 25 members appeared in official portraits released last week with grey hair. That marked a departure from a tradition of Chinese leaders sporting mops of shiny black hair despite being in their 50s or 60s.

Most of the Communist Party’s leaders preferred jet-black hair when former leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were in power.

Even at the party congress this month, there was hardly a white or grey hair on the head of the 91-year-old Jiang and 74-year-old Hu.

Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian, said that since Jiang’s era, more party leaders had resorted to dyeing their hair black to appear more youthful.

“The elder leaders were anxious about their age,” Zhang said. “The generation of princelings is more confident of their power. They may care less about appearance.”

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Beijing-based political analyst Wu Qiang said Hu’s time saw Chinese officials adopt a more standardised appearance – and hairstyle. In contrast, current President Xi Jinping seems to be cutting down on such rituals since assuming power in 2012.

“Xi wants to build a different image, one that appears more casual and closer to the people,” Wu said.

Although Xi’s hair is black in his official portrait, he sometimes appears in public with strands of grey.

State media once quoted a National People’s Congress delegate as saying she noticed the president had more white hair than before, so he must be working hard at managing the country.

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Two-term Politburo members Wang Yang, 62, Hu Chunhua, 54, and Zhao Leji, 60, were the only three with grey hair when they joined the leadership body in 2012, even though they also were among its youngest members.

And this month, the leadership group welcomed two new cadres who do not seem to mind looking a bit older.

Liu He, 65, Xi’s trusted economic adviser, had white hair; and Beijing party chief Cai Qi, 62, had grey and white hair in his portrait.

In the past, grey hair seemed reserved mostly for retired leaders and those who fell from power.

Former premier Zhu Rongji, who retired in 2003 with black hair, surprised the public by appearing at the 2012 party congress with grey hair.

And when former security tsar Zhou Yongkang turned up in court for his corruption trial, many Chinese were shocked to find his perfect black hair had turned completely white in less than three years.