The great French philosopher Roland Barthes once wrote that fashion was a world created by the gaze of men. The same might be said of China's public landscape, dominated as it is by men (usually in their late 40s and above) from a rather homogenous educational and cultural background. This is even more true of the power-elite: the Chinese Communist Party's membership is 80% male, and there are only a handful of women on the CCP's central committee (and none on the politburo's standing committee). The gaze of men creates the world of China. No wonder Chinese cities increasingly look the same.
Against this background, it may seem strange to propose that a 27-year-old Shandong model called Gan Lulu, famous for a brief but sensational appearance in a tight black dress ("more flesh than fabric" said one observer) at the Beijing motor-fair in April 2012, is a significant figure in modern China. But in many ways, she is – more perhaps than many inside as well as outside China realise.
Gan Lulu, who in time-honoured fashion graduated from one of Beijing's many acting academies, is armed with a ferociously pushy mother who shares the spotlight at her public appearances, snapping photos beside the Chinese paparazzi. The mother's interventionist role in the daughter’s career includes posting a film of Gan Lulu on the internet in which she berates her for not having a boyfriend and preparing to marry and settle down. The somewhat contradictory moral economy of "selling" your daughter while trying to promote traditional moral norms is routine for modern China, where the combination of rapid growth and social change has produced an era of rich confusion.
But for all the confusion - and for all the snobbish disdain people like her attract - Gan Lulu does represent something important in modern China. She, or the phenomenon she embodies, may even come to exert a more enduring influence than the interminable leadership transition still grinding forward in Beijing. That process is being conducted in an environment dense with scrutiny and inference yet devoid of information, in which even a stray comment about the weather by a politiburo member is an occasion for quasi-mystical runes-reading (the reference is to He Guoqiang, who on a visit to the megacity of Chongqing after the fall of its big boss Bo Xilai unfavourably contrasted the climate there with Beijing's - which was instantly viewed as a signal of Bo's imminent political decapitation in the capital).
The political curse
After 1949 in China, it was a cultural given that politics was everywhere. It invaded your private space, your intimate relations, your working life, your travels, your language. The apogee of this pervasive influence was the "great cultural revolution" (1966-76), when everyday events were choreographed according to a political programme formulated around the "great helmsman", Mao Zedong. His image was on every wall, his myth saturated the country's artistic life, his truisms were ubiqitous, his persona was invested with superhuman abilities.
These days, the interface between politics and daily life in China is more subtle. Yet it is remains, and for the average Chinese to attempt what people in the west would take for granted - "depoliticising" one's life, adopting a stance of nonchalance or complete indifference to leaders' claim on the attention - still proves surprisingly difficult. Politics might no longer be so much "in control" (as a favourite ultra-Maoist slogan had it) but it continues to supply a noisy, inescapable mood-music in the backdrop of most Chinese people’s lives.
After all, they will be obliged to deal with officials at key points in their careers, especially if they become successful. They will need to be careful what they write on the internet, how they interact in society and with whom, what news they read and what cultural choices they make. In all of these areas, politics somehow gets factored in. Even a trenchant and high-profile critic of the Beijing government like Ai Weiwei spends much time denying that he is making "political" statements - only for this to become part of a political domain he seeks to avoid.
It will be said that in China a person can curse the government as long as it is done discreetly, without either commiting it to print or taking any resulting action. Well, China's rulers may be able to tolerate most cursing; but the one thing it can’t put up with is a bold, cool refusal to allow them and their political messages to have any purchase, moral reach or cultural impact on the Chinese citizen's life. For Beijing's elite, as for Oscar Wilde, the one thing worse than being talked about is not being talked out.
Many Chinese, living with this reality, adopt a kind of self-aware cynicism. This strategy leads them to respond to the dance of interest, greed and hypocrisy at the summit of China's system, or to the maze of allegations surrounding Bo Xilai and his immediate family, by turning away with a weary sigh and wishing a plague on it all. But cynicism, again echoing Wilde, is a cheap and shallow option. China deserves better.
The future figure
Which brings us back to Gan Lulu. Again, it would seem foolhardy to pile political meaning onto a self-promoting young model whose weapons are an assertive mum, a wardrobe of skimpy clothes, and an ability to draw the puritanical ire of many thousands of China's Weibo followers.
Yet in the distorting conditions of today's China, where the government's relentless attention-seeking is matched by the visceral hostility of anti-government activists and the alienation of many of their followers, Gan's triumphantly apolitical appeal - straighter, more honest, and (yes) more innocent - gives her a rare integrity.
Gan could not possibly be recruited by a Chinese political class that, whatever bedlam is going on in its members' private lives, is outwardly super-priggish. And if she were tempted, she would soon be buried under the sort of elite pomposity that comes as easily as breathing to so many of China's privileged.
By the standards of those around her, Gan Lulu seems far more a pointer to China's future. In her style of expression, the way she chooses to exercise influence and power, her curiously moving reach beyond herself and her world, she is a symbol of what China is becoming. The CCP, if it were wise, could learn one important lesson from her: that the future of China is not just about politics or "the economy, stupid" - it’s also about humanity.