The Chinese Fashion Industry: Clothing, Modernization, and Globalization


OG Party Suit Wearer
Conclusion: Clothing, Modernization, and Globalization
Author:Jianhua Zhao
“Socialist Market Economy with Chinese Characteristics”

When the Chinese Communist Party decided to reform the Chinese economy in 1978, it started a fundamental shift in China’s economic structure from a state-owned and state-run planned economy to one that is composed of increasing shares of privately owned and foreign-owned sectors. China’s apparel industry is particularly illustrative of this trend.

Since the early 1990s, China’s apparel industry has been dominated by non-state-owned sectors. Such a shift in China’s economic structure has created a paradox for the CCP: on the one hand, the CCP still insists on a Marxist ideology that asserts that the economic base determines the superstructure, a concept that every Chinese high school student can recite, and on the other hand, the Chinese economy today is no longer state-owned and the “socialist” share has shrunk to a dismal minority. How then can the CCP and the state justify within the Marxist framework that China is still a socialist economy and should maintain a socialist ideology and superstructure?

Heartened by Deng’s comments during his famous tour to South China in the spring of 1992 (see Chapter 2), former president Jiang Zemin came up with a solution in his speech at the 14th Party Congress in October 1992, which stated that the goal for China’s economic reform was “to construct a socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics.” Evidently, Jiang intended to create a compromise between the Chinese economic reality and the ruling ideology with the notion of a socialist market economy. However, not everyone agrees with Jiang’s characterization of the Chinese economy. For example, British political scientist Shaun Breslin (2004) calls the Chinese economy “capitalism with Chinese characteristics.”

Be it capitalism or socialism, the introduction of market forces into the Chinese economy has simultaneously changed the structure of the Chinese economy and the socialist ideology, and consequently both have been endowed with “Chinese characteristics.” Alternatively, one may say that it was because of the specific context of China to which the market economy and the socialist ideology, both of foreign origin, had to adapt, that they acquired the “Chinese characteristics.” This raises the question: What are the basic characteristics of China?

Once again, Deng Xiaoping was the first Chinese leader who used the phrase “socialism with Chinese characteristics” in his opening address at the 12th Party Congress in 1982, but the idea of the “Chinese characteristics” was not fully developed until the then-Communist Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang’s speech at the 13th Party Congress in 1987, in which Zhao proclaimed that China was in the “elementary stage” (chuji jieduan) of a socialist society because of the “basic characteristics” of China (jiben guoqing), which included “a huge population, an economy with little accumulated wealth, uneven regional development, and underdeveloped means of production.”

According to Zhao, those characteristics of China determined that for a long time China would be in the elementary stage of socialism, and consequently it had to adapt socialism to the Chinese reality and build a socialist society with Chinese characteristics. In other words, Zhao (and the CCP) thought that because Chinese socialism was not developed out of an advanced capitalist economy, it had some catch-up to do with regard to the economic base. This position of the CCP was translated into a policy that gradually allowed the market, instead of the state, to play the fundamental role in allocating resources.

Therefore, in a broad sense, the Chinese political economy represents a syncretism between Marxism and the Chinese reality, and between Chinese socialism and market mechanisms. In this light, the phenomenal changes that have taken place in contemporary China are also the process in which both Marxism and market mechanisms become localized in China and vested with “Chinese characteristics.” In this broad context, the dramatic rise of the Chinese fashion industry this book describes is shaped by and attains “Chinese characteristics.”

In what follows, I will highlight some of the “Chinese characteristics” that have been discussed throughout this book in order to address the three questions asked in the very beginning of the book: How did the phenomenal changes in Chinese clothing and the fashion industry come into being? What are the implications of these changes for the professionals, such as fashion designers, who work in the industry? And what can these changes tell us about the macro processes of modernization and globalization in China?

Rise of the Chinese Fashion Industry: Is It Just a State Project?
In the course of the rise of the Chinese fashion industry, the state played an important and unique role. It reformed the economic system from a planned economy to a market-oriented economy, which facilitated the rapid growth of the textile and apparel industries (Chapter 2).

In fact, the state did not just adopt measures in order to facilitate the growth of the fashion industry; it also took the charge in boosting the growth of the industry. National leaders such as Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang personally led and encouraged diversification of clothing styles, and they were responsible for removing ideological baggage from clothing in the early days of the economic reforms (Chapter 3). The state also reorganized the government bureaucracy and set up the service-oriented and voluntarily based China National Textile Industry Council and China Fashion Association to better assist the market-based textile and apparel industries. At the same time, the state, via CNTIC and CFA, intensified efforts to create “famed designers” and “name brands,” which was evident through the award system at China Fashion Week (Chapter 6). All these indicate that the state was deeply involved in the Chinese fashion industry and its growth.

On top of the measures designed by the state to boost the growth of the fashion industry, the state also attempted to map an “official” version of modernity onto Chinese clothing by constructing an official narrative of the evolution of contemporary Chinese clothing (Chapter 3). At the same time, however, there is another side to the all-powerful state in the rise of the Chinese fashion industry. Once the state allowed market forces into the economic system, the non-state sectors quickly flourished and captured market shares at the expense of the state-owned sector, and in a sense forced the state-owned sector to undergo dramatic reforms in order to become economically viable. Similarly, once the state removed the ideological constraints from clothing, style diversification took its own course and the state was left with few tools to regulate dress (not to say that it was in the state’s interest to do so). Although it is true that the state brought CNTIC and CFA into being and still partially finances their operation, and that the power of the state can easily penetrate CFW (as representatives of the state can easily obtain privileged positions at fashion shows during CFW), the success or failure of Chinese fashion designers is largely dependent on their performance at CFW or in the marketplace.

In other words, the Chinese field of fashion functions relatively independently of the state. Even in the state-sponsored project of creating a modern national dress for the APEC Summit in 2001, the state’s ability to control the meaning of the tangzhuang was under challenge by Chinese scholars and consumer-citizens in various ways (Chapter 4). It is in this sense that I argue that clothing and the fashion industry are not just a means to achieve modernization by the state in China, but also a medium through which a Chinese notion of modernity is articulated and contested. The dynamics between the state and the market are unique Chinese characteristics that have shaped the rise of the Chinese fashion industry in the reform era.

What Are the Implications for Chinese Fashion Professionals?
The dramatic rise of the Chinese fashion industry has profound implications for those who work in the industry. This book has mainly touched upon three groups of professionals: fashion designers, models, and trade agents. Many of them thrived in the booming fashion industry. In the case of Chinese fashion designers and models, their professions came into being along with the rise of the domestic fashion industry.

As white-collar professionals, Chinese fashion designers and models now enjoy generally high income and high status in society. In the early days of the reform period, by contrast, fashion models were awkwardly known as “fashion actresses” and fashion designers had to justify what they did as different from the commonly known and lowly regarded caifeng. Therefore, along with the rise of the Chinese fashion industry, the professionals who work in the industry, such as the designers, models, and trade agents, have become upwardly mobile groups in society.

Though there are unmistakable positive implications for the professionals working in the Chinese fashion industry, the social and structural constraints over them should not be overlooked. As Chapter 5 made clear, Chinese fashion designers have to confront not just the association of their trade with the lowly regarded caifeng(domestic perception), but also the stereotype of them being copycats of Western designers (international perception).

In their struggle against both stereotypes, Chinese fashion designers often directly or indirectly resort to art in order to claim higher social distinctions. In this environment, couture-style fashion shows at China Fashion Week (also favored by the award system of the China Fashion Association) become one of the few viable strategies for Chinese fashion designers to achieve social distinctions and greater financial rewards. For most Chinese fashion designers, to do a show at CFW or design their own line will remain a dream that may or may not come true. Many of them end up working “anonymously” in the export-oriented garment factories. But the dream is alive and the temptation is real, which often results in frequent job changes from a quality control person to a pattern maker, to a merchandiser, to an assistant designer, to a chief designer, to a freelancer, and to a studio owner or a designer of their own lines.

As long as they feel that they are getting closer to that dream, they would jump at the next opportunity. It is through their dealings with the social and structural constraints as well as opportunities unique to the Chinese context that Chinese fashion designers (and other professionals) come to define the “Chinese-ness” of their profession.

Fashion, Localization, Globalization
The processes of globalization and localization are constant themes that emerge throughout this book. The global connections of the Chinese fashion industry primarily exhibit in two-directional flows: the inflow of Western ideas, styles, design techniques, business models, and fashion shows to China and the outflow of Chinese-made garments to the West. In both types of flows, which suggest intensifying global integration of the fashion industry, trends of globalization are met with various forms of localization.

In learning Western development models and ideas, the Chinese state adopted market-oriented economic reforms in order to modernize the textile and apparel industries. Yet, the Chinese model of modernization is not based on free market economy; instead, the state along with the market played and is playing a key role.

The unique dynamic between the state and the market in the reform period indicates that “modernization” in China is a localized phenomenon. Similarly, by promoting Western suits and other Western fashions, the national leaders did not promote the idea of Westernization; instead the state endorses a Chinese notion of modernity in relation to their own past (rather than the West). Chinese fashion designers intently study Western fashions, design techniques, and business models, but they are not simple copycats of their Western colleagues. In order to succeed in the Chinese marketplace, they have to understand not just the needs and wants of the Chinese consumers, but also what it means to be a fashion designer and the unique social and structural constraints on them. It is in the Chinese context that Chinese designers’ leaning toward artistic designs and couture shows takes on new local meanings, as discussed previously. Consequently, the huge inflow of Western goods, practices, ideas and models did not automatically translate into a Westernization of China or a global homogenization. On the contrary, they are “re-territorialized” in China and endowed with Chinese meanings.

In this sense, this study of the Chinese clothing and fashion industry thus joins previous anthropological studies (e.g., Watson 1997; Miller 1998) that challenge the global homogenization or Westernization thesis that permeates the popular imagination of the so-called “global pop culture.”

Moreover, this book has also explored the integration of China’s clothing industry with the global clothing industry by examining the outflow of Chinese-made garments to the United States (Chapter 7). China is the largest exporter of garments to the United States as well as in the world. However, the dominant mode in which these exported garments are produced in China is called a full-package OEM production for Western OBM importers that control the symbolic and valuable components (the design and brand) of the garments as well as the high-value-added processes of design, distribution, and marketing. Because of the uneven distribution of power between Chinese OEM suppliers and Western OBM buyers, Chinese suppliers are alienated from the meanings of the garments they produced at the site of their consumption in the West.

The work of the Chinese producers is potently reduced to a tag marked “made in China” that is hidden from view, only to serve as an instrument by which the state regulates the transnational flow of the garments. Therefore, the way in which Chinese-made garments are exported to the United States (and the EU) is conditioned, shaped, and regulated by the imbalance of power between Chinese OEM producers and the U.S. (and the EU) OBM buyers, and simultaneously the uneven power between China and the United States (and the EU). While the rapid expansion of the export of Chinese-made clothing suggests an increasing participation of China in the global economy, it also reminds us that the world is indeed not flat (cf. Friedman 2005).

Therefore, in very broad strokes, this book uses the Chinese fashion industry as a site, and has studied how the rise of the Chinese fashion industry is constituted by and constitutive of the dynamics between the state and the market, the life and work of Chinese fashion designers (and other professionals), and various processes of localization and globalization that have been taking place in post-Mao China.

Caveats and Suggestions for Future Research
As mentioned in the beginning of this book, the goal of this book is not only to understand the dramatic changes in the Chinese fashion industry, but also to understand what the changes in the fashion industry can tell us about the broader changes in Chinese society. It is my hope that this book has demonstrated that change is at the heart of the Chinese fashion industry, and that China has undergone phenomenal changes in the past few decades and is still changing rapidly.

But the ultimate fear for anyone writing a book that studies change in China today and particularly one that studies the fashion industry, which is the quintessential embodiment of change, is that you are going to miss the moving target. At the same time, however, the rapid change in the Chinese fashion industry (as well as in Chinese society more broadly) provides a perfect illustration that “there is nothing immutable or primordial about cultural systems…What is ‘in’ today is ‘out’ tomorrow” (Watson 1997: 10).

To study the Chinese fashion industry as a cultural system, this book takes a cultural economy approach that is informed by the social life or cultural biography (Kopytoff 1986) approach and the global commodity chain perspective (Gereffi & Korzeniewicz 1994; Bestor 2001). This approach is supported by the fact that Chinese clothing and the fashion industry are situated at the intersection of culture and economy, and of the local and the global. It has, therefore, the strength to illustrate cultural and economic logic inherent in the Chinese fashion industry and at the same time engage with a wide range of broader issues and theoretical debates such as modernization and globalization. This approach also has the advantage of highlighting the interconnections of the fashion industry as a whole.

Yet, a study that focuses on one sector of the industry, one segment of the commodity chain, or one particular group that is involved in the industry will probably be better suited to uncover the “cultural biography” of that one sector, segment, or group. Aside from the fashion professionals, especially fashion designers that are studied in this book, more ethnographic studies are needed to understand how the structural changes in the Chinese textile and apparel industries impacted the lives of the workers.Chapter 2 noted that over one million Chinese textile and garment workers lost their jobs during the restructuring of the state-owned enterprises in the late 1990s. In fact, that was only a part of the story.

Because of China’s dual “household registration system” (hukou), workers with urban residence registration were better protected by the state than workers with rural residence registration. Thus, future research on Chinese garment workers should examine not just the relationship between labor and management, between workers and the state, but also the distinctions among the workers themselves and the uneven impact on them due to the changes in the Chinese textile and apparel industries.1

Another focus for future research could be on the Chinese consumers, examining the ways through which clothing is related to issues of class and social stratification (Davis 2000; Goodman 1999), which have become increasingly prominent in the reform era. According to some scholars, increasing consumer choices have become the “new social,” in which private individuals exercise self-governing and self-responsibility in post-socialist China (Ong and Zhang 2008).

In addition to locally focused research, future research can also further expand the network analysis explored in Chapter 7 and examine the global connections or disconnections of the network resulting from the transnational movements of clothing. The global commodity chains are useful tools to study how the meanings of commodities are locally constructed and at the same time how the global political economy shapes and conditions the commodity chains.

Finally, Chinese clothing and the fashion industry involve many aspects that are frequently studied separately by various disciplines. As is demonstrated in this book, both the business and cultural aspects of dress are vital to Chinese fashion designers and the industry as whole. It is my hope that this book will be a step toward more interdisciplinary research on the emerging trends, conditions, and challenges in the Chinese fashion industry in the twenty-first century.
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I should have said this didn't have pictures and was for readers.
It's quite an interesting article. I need to re-read it when I have some time.
Its really just the conclusion of a much much longer paper.

But it seems to be from someone who actually understands the Chinese society so from that point of view I think it has some insights

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