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‘Cadre style’ fashion is new trend in China’s strained economy – The Washington Post

By the fall of Harry Wang’s senior year at Tianjin Foreign Studies University, the French major was set for a bright future in China’s private economy. He had job offers from global companies, including drug giant AstraZeneca and TikTok owner ByteDance. But one afternoon last September, he rejected them to pursue a career as a Chinese civil servant.
The 22-year-old said his decision helped him feel “determined and confident” for the ultracompetitive written test to become a bureaucrat. His sense of purpose also came from having already dressed the part: Wang is into “cadre-style” fashion, an online trend in China in which young men don the outfits of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) apparatchiks they aspire to become.
Long considered uninspired, the simple attire of the Chinese politician in recent months has gained new appeal for those who want the security of official jobs. “As private companies announce mass layoffs due to the pandemic, cadre style’s popularity reflects the desire for a life within the system with a stable job and income,” Wang said.
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Rising unemployment and an uncertain economic outlook have made seemingly stable careers within the party and its sprawling bureaucracy increasingly attractive for the nearly 11 million Chinese university graduates who entered the job market this summer.
The economic troubles are threatening to undermine an important moment for Chinese leader Xi Jinping as he prepares to take on a precedent-breaking third term at the 20th Party Congress this fall. Top leaders signaled last month that their previous goal of 5.5 percent economic growth this year would be unattainable, because of China’s strict adherence to a “zero covid” policy and a sharp slowdown in the housing market.
Adding to the pain, unemployment for 16-to-24-year-olds hit a record 19.9 percent in July, amid almost uniformly weak economic data released this week. The causes include coronavirus restrictions and a regulatory crackdown that has hit the tech industry and private education. As a result, more Chinese university students than ever are turning to the party-state in search of reliable careers.
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, 68 people on average were competing for each position. In Tibet, a single postal service job drew nearly 20,000 applicants, according to the state-run Global Times newspaper.
“For young graduates, stability has become the priority,” said Wang Yixin, director of public relations at the online recruitment platform Zhilian Zhaopin. He said the rising unemployment was caused by coronavirus outbreaks that affected domestic production, and the cancellation of job fairs just as overseas students returned to China during the pandemic. “Many have started to believe that by working as a civil servant, their lives can become more stable.”
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On the Instagram-like platform Xiaohongshu, or Little Red Book, cadre-style hashtags on photos of mostly young men dressing like government officials have millions of views. Many of the posters call themselves a “boyfriend from within the system,” implying that men who work in coveted government jobs make for good marriage material.
A widely shared article on the social media app WeChat described the fascination as reflecting the power that public officials wield and the respect they garner — especially among parents pressuring their daughters to get married.
“Unlike branded clothing to showcase oneself, the core of cadre style is … discretely showing that a 20-year-old has the capabilities of a 30-year-old and the resources of a 40-year-old,” the article said to explain why parents hope their daughters will find a partner within the system.
Not everyone is impressed by the trend. Online influencers have said it is simply dressing badly. Chinese media wrote about a 25-year-old who was commonly mistaken for a middle-aged official because he dressed like one. On the microblog Weibo, one person said, “Why say something ugly is beautiful, use looking old to gain seniority, and turn 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 cadre style is unremarkable, because being unshowy is part of the point. One common choice is the plain dark suit with a cheap white shirt and sensible leather shoes. Another is the unbranded polo shirt. The signature windbreaker jackets worn by top party leaders are particularly popular.
For Wang, the recent graduate, the CCP badge is essential. Raised in Hanzhong, a city of 3 million in Shaanxi province, by two civil servant parents, Wang applied to join the party in his first year at college. Uploading photos of himself dressed in dark suits with the bright red emblem of the party pinned to his lapel “gives people the feeling that you are 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 their political beliefs, in part because it can help with job applications. But Wang says he is a true believer, drawn to officialdom by a school trip to Zhengding County in Hebei province, where he was inspired by the example of Xi Jinping, who at 30 years old became the local party boss in the 1980s.
“Of course, there are a lot of uncertainties, but I wish that through my efforts I could become the main cadre of a department or a bureau,” Wang said. “Or even a director.”
But not everyone is able to work for the government. And the troubled job market has led many to compromise on their dream jobs. A survey in May by Zhilian Zhaopin found that 55 percent of recent graduates said the economic situation caused them to lower their expectations for future jobs, with their average predicted salary being about $930 per month, down by 6 percent from a year before.
After graduating from a second-tier university in Wuhan last year, Linn 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 her hometown.
Wang — who is not related to Harry Wang or Wang Yixin — did not consider taking the civil service exam. “It’s too competitive. I wouldn’t stand a chance,” she said, adding that only one person she knew had made the cut.
“The different situation for graduates in my year is that everyone is now applying for the jobs that were previously unappealing to top university students,” said the 22-year-old business graduate. “There are a lot of competitors. Those who got fired by big companies are also competing with you.”
With savings from her previous internships as a cushion, Wang said she has not reached the point where she would need to apply for an unemployment allowance, but has decided against aiming for an ideal job. “I used to want to find jobs with two days off a week, but now I can put up with just a single day off,” she said. “You have to face reality.”

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