Why Did Xi Let His Hair Go Fray

Former Chinese president Hu Jintao was perhaps the most boring leader in modern times. His only recorded joke came when he was visiting the U.S. in 2007. The then-governor of New Jersey, James McGreevey, told Mr. Hu—whose hair was jet-black—that he did not look his 59 years. Mr. Hu replied: “China would be happy to share its technology in this area.”

Why do Chinese leaders dye their hair? It has nothing to do with communist ideology. The idea that black-haired rulers project an image of vigor and energy dates back to ancient times. As the Confucian philosopher Mencius put it in the 4th century B.C., “white-haired people” should be cared for rather than engage in heavy work. It would be strange, in a Chinese context, to be ruled by “white-haired people,” and one professional coiffeur estimated that Chinese politicians need to touch up their hair roots every 10 days or so to maintain that jet-black look.

For a Chinese leader to have white hair would be a sign that he has left politics, either by force or voluntarily. When former Politburo member Zhou Yongkang appeared in court in 2015, the highest-ranking victim of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, his jet-black hair had turned completely white. Former president Jiang Zemin, on the other hand, continued to dye his hair for public appearances well into his 90s, a sign that he still exercised some power behind the scenes.

Of course, more recent factors than ancient tradition are also at play. The collective leadership system in China, developed in reaction to Chairman Mao’s arbitrary one-man rule, de-emphasizes individuality. Policy-making is supposed to be the product of collective deliberation among members of the standing committee of the Politburo, and individual leaders are not supposed to stick out too much. Here Hu Jintao was a master: His jet-black hair blended with other leaders who dyed their hair in an identical way, sending the message that he really was an equal among the eight other members of the standing committee.

Following a legislative conference when he solidified his plan for running China, Xi Jinping moved to the question of how to establish a more favorable global order. This is how Putin and Xi are planning to overthrow the new world order.

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