Fighting grey: Why do China's leaders dye their hair?

Delegates attend the third plenary session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing March 10, 2013. Adopting similar hairstyles and clothing may help project party unity

Dark suits, red ties and identical helmets of jet black hair.

Beneath a giant hammer and sickle, the elite at the top of the Communist Party assembled for the country's annual parliament session last week, all wearing the same unofficial uniform.

As they stood to listen to the country's national anthem, the politicians stood in perfect rows, spaced a few feet apart. Each person had a white teacup and a copy of the premier's upcoming speech on the desk directly in front on them.

From a distance, it was nearly impossible to distinguish one leader from another.

At the top levels of the Communist Party, it seems, leaders take pains to blend in with one another.

Former Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji Former Premier Zhu Rongji was praised for letting his hair go grey

It was a different story last November, when many retired leaders attended the Communist Party Congress, a meeting held once every five years.

After watching the meeting on television, users of weibo, China's version of Twitter, immediately logged on to discuss a shocking breach of protocol: retired Premier Zhu Rongji had dared to go grey.

"Take a look at the podium for the party congress, it's all people dying their hair and pretending to look young," wrote one user.

"Zhu's hair is so natural. If you are old, you are old," praised another.

"Officials at a certain rank all have standardised black hair," noted a third. "If you think carefully, how can everyone look so youthful?"

'Political issue'

Chinese leaders' thirst for black hair dye isn't mirrored in the rest of the population.

Start Quote

I don't want to see my leader with grey hair. It will make him look old… like he's about to die!”

End Quote Hong Haiting Stylist, Sassy hair salon

At the Sassy hair salon in downtown Beijing, long-time hairstylist Hong Haiting says women are the ones driving sales of hair colour.

Most Chinese men, he explains, are more concerned about going bald than maintaining a full head of black hair.

"In the late 90s, men really worried about going grey," he explains. "They often dyed their hair. Now, only middle-aged women over 40 colour their hair every month."

But Mr Hong still expects Chinese politicians to keep up appearances.

"I don't want to see my leader with grey hair. It will make him look old… like he's about to die!" he argues.

"How could a person like that lead our country? This is a political issue, not a lifestyle one."

Playing down differences

Party leaders are conscious of their attempts to look the same.

"The Communist Party is one of the most disciplined institutions ever devised by humankind. Not a lot at that level happens purely by accident," explains Steve Tsang, professor at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.

If every party leader sports the same outfit and hair colour, it's easy to blend in and dodge blame for the failure of any particular policy, Prof Tsang says.

Hong Haiting Stylist Hong Haiting says most of his clients requesting hair colouring are women

"Wearing a kind of uniform and looking pretty similar and maintaining a pretty high manifestation of party discipline gives you a fair bit of protection."

China's top leaders are also trying to play down their differences in order to emphasise the stability of the Communist Party, explains Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of Danwei.org, a Beijing-based media research firm.

"They've tried to show that the party is not dependent on any single personality, it's an institution. They've tried to devalue the individual in favour of the party."

Maintaining perfectly black hair is a political commitment that requires time and money. At the Sassy hair salon, the hairstylist, Hong Haiting, estimates Chinese politicians have to touch up their roots every 10 days.

Incoming President Xi Jinping is promising to cut down on government expenses. Perhaps soon, he'll signal a change in the Communist leaders' de facto uniform, saving the country a massive salon bill at the same time.

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