Cadre fashion is a new trend in China’s strained economy

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By the fall of Harry Wang’s senior year at Tianjin University of Foreign Studies, the French major was poised for a bright future in China’s private economy. He had job offers from global companies, including pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca and TikTok owner ByteDance. But one afternoon last September, he refused them to continue his career as a Chinese civil servant.

The 22-year-old said his decision helped him feel “determined and confident” about the ultra-competitive written test to become a bureaucrat. His sense of purpose also comes from having already dressed the part: Wang is interested in “cadre” fashion, an online trend in China in which young men don the outfits of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) apparatchiks who aspire to get up.

Long considered uninspiring, the simple attire of the Chinese politician has gained new appeal in recent months for those who want the security of official jobs. “As private companies announce mass layoffs due to the pandemic, the popularity of cadre style reflects the desire to live within the system with stable work and income,” Wang said.

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Rising unemployment and an uncertain economic outlook have made seemingly stable careers in the party and a sprawling bureaucracy increasingly attractive to the nearly 11 million Chinese university graduates who hit the job market this summer.

Economic woes threaten to undermine a milestone for Chinese leader Xi Jinping as he prepares to take an unprecedented third term at the 20th Party Congress this fall. Senior leaders signaled last month that their previous target of 5.5 percent economic growth this year would be out of reach because of China’s strict adherence to a “zero-covid” policy and a sharp slowdown in the housing market.

Adding to the pain, unemployment among 16- to 24-year-olds hit a record 19.9 percent in July amid almost uniformly weak economic data released this week. The reasons include coronavirus restrictions and regulatory crackdowns that have hit the tech industry and private education. As a result, more Chinese students than ever are turning to the party-state in search of a reliable career.

In November, a record 2.1 million people registered for China’s annual civil service exam in pursuit of the “iron rice bowl” of state-guaranteed employment. With only 31,200 openings, an average of 68 people competed for each position. In Tibet, one post office job attracted nearly 20,000 applicants, according to the state-run Global Times newspaper.

“For young graduates, stability has become a priority,” said Wang Yixing, director of public relations at online recruitment platform Zhilian Zhaopin. He said rising unemployment was caused by coronavirus outbreaks that have affected local manufacturing and the cancellation of job fairs just as foreign students returned to China during the pandemic. “Many began to believe that by working as a civil servant, their lives could become more stable.”

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On the Instagram-like platform Xiaohongshu, or Little Red Book, “frame”-style hashtags on photos of mostly young men dressed as government officials have millions of views. Many of the posters refer to themselves as “system boyfriends,” implying that men who work in coveted government jobs are good marriage material.

A widely shared article on social media app WeChat described the fascination as reflecting the power government officials wield and the respect they command – especially among parents who pressure their daughters to marry.

“Unlike brand-name clothing to show off, the core of cadre style is … to discreetly show that a 20-year-old has the capabilities of a 30-year-old and the resources of a 40-year-old,” the article says, explaining why parents hope their daughters find a partner within the system.

Not everyone is impressed with the trend. Online influencers said she just dresses badly. Chinese media reported on a 25-year-old man who was usually mistaken for a middle-aged employee because he dressed like one. On the Weibo microblog, one person said, “Why do we say something ugly is beautiful, use looking old to gain seniority, and turn a lack of personality into an ability?”

At a time when Xi has reasserted the party’s leadership over all aspects of society and cracked down on perceived excesses in the private economy, there is also increased pressure on young people to publicly signal what the party calls “core socialist values” of patriotism, dedication and integrity.

To the casual observer, the style of the footage is unremarkable, because being understated is part of the point. A common choice is a plain dark suit with a cheap white shirt and comfortable leather shoes. Another is the unbranded polo shirt. Particularly popular are the characteristic windbreaker jackets worn by senior party leaders.

For Wang, a recent graduate, the CCP badge is essential. Raised in Hanzhong, a city of 3 million in Shaanxi province, to two civil servant parents, Wang applied to join the party in his first year of college. Uploading pictures of him dressed in dark suits with a bright red party emblem pinned to his lapel “gives people the impression that you’re mature and serious,” he said.

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Signing up for party membership has long been a common choice for ambitious young Chinese, regardless of political affiliation, in part because it can help with job applications. But Wang says he is a true believer, drawn to the post by a school trip to Junding County in Hebei province, where he was inspired by the example of Xi Jinping, who at age 30 became a local party boss in the 1980s.

“Of course, there are many uncertainties, but I wish that through my efforts I can become the chief staff of a department or bureau,” Wang said. “Or even a director.”

But not everyone can work for the government. And the troubled job market has forced many to compromise on their dream job. A May survey by Zhilian Zhaopin found that 55 percent of recent college graduates said the economic situation had caused them to lower their expectations for future jobs, with their average projected salary at about $930 a month, up 6 percent from – less than a year earlier.

After graduating from a junior university in Wuhan last year, Lin Wang spent months trying to find a job, eventually deciding to move to one of China’s most populous cities, Guangzhou, after several failed attempts in his hometown.

Wang, who is not related to Harry Wang or Wang Yixing, did not consider taking the civil service exam. “It’s too competitive. I wouldn’t have had a chance,” she said, adding that only one person she knew made the cut.

“The different situation for graduates in my year is that now everyone is applying for jobs that used to be unattractive to the university’s top students,” said the 22-year-old business graduate. “There are many competitors. Those who were fired from big companies are also competing with you.

With savings from her previous internships as a cushion, Wang said she hasn’t reached the point where she’ll need to apply for unemployment benefits, but has decided not to pursue an ideal job. “I used to want to get a job with two days off a week, but now I can only put up with one day off,” she said. “You have to face reality.”

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