Enter a Beijing eyeglasses shop, and you’ll invariably see a special case filled with thick, oversize spectacles. Salespeople refer to them as lingdao (leaders) glasses. They are considered the preferred style of China’s political elite, who currently are gathered in Beijing for the National People’s Congress’s (NPC) annual confab, a largely symbolic exercise in which some 3,000 political deputies wave through legislation with little in the way of real debate. Lingdao eyewear, although not necessarily on the cutting edge of global fashion, can cost remarkable amounts of money. A version with 18-karat-gold frames, for example, runs for $13,000. Run-of-the-mill pairs, say Beijing salespeople, start at $1,000.
Given that the richest 70 NPC deputies are worth nearly $90 billion, according to the Shanghai-based wealth monitor Hurun Report, a cool grand (or 80) for glasses is mere pocket change. But the lingdao-glasses phenomenon illustrates China’s growing wealth gap and the accompanying social tensions that are jolting the country. Jiang Zemin, the former Chinese President who famously wore supersize, black-rimmed glasses, encouraged private entrepreneurs to join the Communist Party and aim for NPC seats back in the 1990s. Since Jiang’s invitation, the wealth of Chinese political figures has skyrocketed. The 70 richest NPC members, for instance, saw an $11.5 billion increase in their net worth from 2010 to 2011, according to Hurun.
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Yet this NPC’s theme is rebalancing China’s economy and preparing the country for the first year in nearly a decade in which growth targets are dipping below 8%. Opening the NPC on March 5, Premier Wen Jiabao (he of the owlish, gold-rimmed specs) predicted 7.5% growth for China in 2012 and criticized his own government for failing to distribute economic gains more equally.
Luxury glasses are hardly the only expensive accoutrement on display at this year’s NPC session. On March 5, Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, burst into overdrive as microbloggers passed around photos of parliamentary deputies accessorizing luxury gear, from Hermès belts and bags to Chanel suits and Marc Jacobs purses. Even Xinhua, the state-run news agency that serves as the government’s voice, waded into the sartorial debate: “Concerns were raised when deputies were spotted wearing luxurious accessories and jewels, while the public generally expect them to keep a low profile.”
This is the last NPC that will be helmed by Hu Jintao, China’s President, who sports the requisite lingdao eyewear of a gold-framed variety. His expected replacement, Vice President Xi Jinping, who is set to begin taking up leadership positions this fall, does not usually wear glasses. He does, however, sport the same shiny, jet black hair as his political forebears. Chinese communist cadres are not fond of going gray gracefully.
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Even as the NPC deputies showed off their bling and readied their rubber stamps — legislation has a habit of sailing through the Chinese parliament — the mood was far more sober halfway across China. Over the weekend and through the beginning of the NPC, three ethnic Tibetans self-immolated in as many days in the remote reaches of Sichuan and Gansu provinces, according to Tibetan exile groups. One was a mother of four, another a middle-school girl and the last a teenage boy. Around two dozen Tibetans have set themselves on fire to protest repressive Chinese rule in the past year. No mention was made of the dramatic suicides in the official Chinese press.
Instead, on March 6, Xinhua’s home page was emblazoned with a giant banner dedicated to a “special report” on the NPC session under way in Beijing. Then underneath the red-and-yellow banner appeared a topic of a lighter vintage: “Check out those stars’ lingerie looks,” ran the headline that accompanied pictures of scantily clad celebrities. “Who is hotter?”
— With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang