Thanks to a global pandemic and a 21st century cold war, Chinese culture has turned inward and is taking conservative turns on several fronts. By further suppressing LGBTQ + and feminist activity while promoting traditional Confucian values, post-COVID China is committed to returning time to a more conservative and, in theory, stable one. But these increasingly stringent cultural policies will leave a deep and lasting imprint on Chinas Gen Z, which will also be the main driver of the growth of luxury and fashion around the world. With the rise of conservatism in China, the liberal world of fashion is likely to undergo profound changes in the years to come.
Like many other civic discourses, the debate over the resurgence of conservatism began on Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like platform. At the end of August, a Publish published by public scholar Zhou Xuanyi has been widely distributed online. Zhou wrote, the greatest glory of my generation is that for the first time in Chinese history, one generation has to ask the next to be less conservative. The post quickly inspired a cascade of commentary on the bizarre phenomenon of China’s Gen Z conservative leanings. Older millennials have coined the terms digital foot binding, cyber chastity belt, and technological chastity ark () to describe Gen Z’s ideological backwardness in the modernized state of China. .
The debate was a response to a recent spate of social scandals in China. Following the government’s zero food waste campaign, a restaurant in Tianjin began selling gender-specific menus that allocate larger portions of food to men. Then, a university in Guangxi, a province in southwest China, suggested that female students not expose much skin to public temptation in its guide to student safety. And now, to counter the rise in divorce cases in the country and the falling birth rate, state officials have introduced a month-long cooling-off period for divorce applications and have proposed more training on responsibility for the newlyweds.
At the end of August, the Shanghai Pride Festival, a hallmark of progressive popular groups in China, announced a permanent closure. To the surprise of many, online support for these topics has mostly come from Gen Z, who see the return to conservatism as a path to China’s cultural autonomy from the West.
Unlike millennials, Chinas Generation Z grew up in a full-fledged luxury boom that developed alongside tighter cultural control. By being less exposed to international media and being force-fed by more nationalistic propaganda, young people born after 2000 are more likely to see progressive values, such as LGBTQ and women’s rights, as a betrayal of Chinese culture. .
For global fashion, the place for any LGBTQ + talk is gradually diminishing in Generation Z in China. On August 10, French jewelry brand Cartier launched a Qixi-themed campaign video on Weibo featuring its signature Trinity ring featuring a gay-looking couple. While there is no direct reference to the relationship, most audiences interpreted the image as LGBT representation. However, on the Cartiers Tmall store page, the same gay couple image was dubbed with the caption father and son. This detail ended up inspiring many comments online, most of them sympathizing with the brand’s creative efforts to bypass Chinese censorship on gay content.
As online comments accumulated, the Cartiers campaign event was picked up by several state media outlets, including Guancha, whose reports described the pun as the brand’s sarcastic and condescending attitude towards the Chinese. A few days after the campaign was released, Cartier removed the image with the caption of the father and son from his Tmall store. The brand has not issued any statement acknowledging the controversy to date.
There has been silence everywhere in China’s LGBTQ + community. In April, Daily jing reported on China’s then booming LGBTQ + fashion scene. Barely six months later, most of the initiatives reported are almost obsolete. On August 13, the Shanghai Pride Festival released a declaration regarding his permanent shutdown, but did not specify any cause. With the headline The End Of The Rainbow, the statement contrasts sharply with the colorful Pride fashion ad still on the site.
Similar to LGBTQ + discourse, feminist messages on gender equality face more severe repression today. Believing in the idea that a traditional family is the foundation of a stable society, mainstream Chinese media have viewed both women’s calls and LGBTQ + rights as a threat to the status quo. On a July episode of the popular TV show Sisters making waves, a girl group’s song performance had the lyrics deleted. Words with direct bodily references, such as bent body () and cowardly woman (), were deemed too explicit and removed from the series. Although the episode generated a setback on social media and angry netizens began circulating the performance clip with the full lyrics reinserted, the episode showed an alarming new level of state control over feminist issues.
A media sales manager from a Shanghai-based agency, who asked Claire W to skip this article, said media censorship started to grow around 2018 and reached a new high in the post-COVID era -19. Official pressure to run positive energy ads has intensified this year, due to COVID, she said. In 2016, it was still possible to do a project that addressed the remaining women as SKII did. Do something similar today [would be] impossible. I don’t think this ad would pass censorship now. The advertisement for SKII’s remaining women was one of the first media representations aired in China to recognize women who chose not to marry but were happy with their decisions. But in an age where dominant voices increasingly try to coerce women into marrying and starting families, women’s choices seem to be narrowing.
During this time, more patriotism appeared on the luxury and fashion scene in China. Last month, the Belgian luxury house Delvaux has launched a collection of limited edition handbags named China Dream, an official political term that describes the ideal nationalist ethos of Chinese citizens. The term China Dream used to appear in national celebratory songs, textbooks, state TV shows, and has now made its way into luxury handbags.
Today, social networks are programmed to infiltrate users with messages encouraging them to devote themselves without flinching to their families and their condition, Claire explained. It’s called positive energy, and now every big budget campaign has to involve positive energy to pass the bar.
To the global fashion industry, these recent events may seem minor, but the Chinese fashion community immediately saw them for what they were: the first signs of the erasure of liberal values and the assertion of norms of traditional genre. In each case, the state is redefining the fashion relationship with young Chinese audiences by placing the nationalist-conservative ideal at the center of a trend (while filtering out progressive messages unrelated to nation-building. ).
Over the past two decades, China’s consumer boom was seen as a vehicle for steady social and cultural liberalization. The idea was that as the economy grew, more fashion ads touting inclusiveness, gender equality, and body positivity would be inevitable. But in the post-COVID era where stability is now the priority, those ideas are crumbling. Consequently, fashion, a medium that has long embraced liberal causes, must adopt a more subtle, if not silent, mode of communication in order to assert its beliefs.
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