Like many other trends in the West, China once really took to the trend of second-generation ‘rich kids’ making very public displays of their over-the-top lifestyles. They posed with stacks of cash, threw the largest parties, gifted luxury cars and electronics to their dogs and even made appropriately snobbish comments to compliment the image.
There was a time not too long ago when these ‘rich kids’ were seen as a visible sign of China’s ascendence as a global economic powerhouse. Once a country with a rural, agricultural population, now the second-generation ultra-wealthy strutted their bling like some kind of European royalty.
But this period of public acceptance for the rich kids and their antics now seems to have come to an end. It is becoming steadily obvious that ostentatious displays of wealth are no appreciated in China.
These displays are now not just rejected by the ruling Chinese Communist Party but also by extension the people of China themselves.
As a signal to this shift, China has seen many of its wealthy and successful fall in the eyes of the public in recent times.
Take the example of the recent controversy stirred by actress Zheng Shuang. A popular celebrity in China, Zheng has fallen out of public favour in recent times.
When it was revealed she made two million yuan a day for many of her roles, people on social media were outraged, to say the least.
One popular comment tried to put into perspective how long an average 6,000 yuan a month job would take to equal the amount of money made by the actor in a single project.
The problem is particularly aggravated when the celebrity or rich person in question is not seen as an ‘ideal role model’. Zheng for instance was already being castigated by the public for allegedly abandoning two kids born to surrogates abroad.
But it goes much deeper than the simple idea that the rich should be good role models.
The problem begins and ends with China’s growing wealth gap which has by accounts become worse after the pandemic. Estimates say that the top one per cent of China’s wealthy have more wealth than the bottom 50 per cent.
The dream of ‘equitable development’ under the party has now long faded into the distance. While the very idea of a ‘Chinese dream’ once rested on a person from a rural, poor background climbing the rungs of the social ladder set-out by the CCP, this has also gotten difficult.
Once seen as a sign of China’s progress, the ‘gaokao’ exam, China’s one exam necessary for almost all higher education, is now seen as a form of institutionalised inequality.
Since the exam is universal, a rapidly growing student population is already crowding up the system before one considers that different test givers have a different amount of investment put into preparing them for the nine-hour long test.
This has resulted in a situation where, for instance, less than a fifth of new graduates at many of China’s top-rated universities hail from rural areas.
But all this does not mean that China suddenly does not care for luxury or wealth. Not too long ago, China overtook Japan as the leading luxury products market in Asia, and even after the pandemic this trend is not expected to dissipate.
The point now is to hint at wealth without being too ostentatious. Beyond avoiding the ire of the general public, this is also based on the very real fear that the CCP itself might target a particularly ostentatious individual to make an example out of.
While it is clear that China’s wealth inequality is a product of the system that the CCP itself set up, the party clearly does not wish to be a target of frustration and anguish by China’s middle class that realises the Chinese dream is not quite so straightforward.
Thus, redirecting attention to those that get richer as others stay poor is increasingly part of the tactic. When China decided to crack down on its increasingly successful tech industry starting with Alibaba founder Jack Ma, Chinese social media reacted with delight.
He was portrayed as an evil, blood-sucking capitalist, a far cry from when he was affectionately called ‘Daddy Ma’.
This was a clear sign to the ultra-wealthy and those who considered themselves insulated from the absolute power of the CCP within China. It was also a sign that as dissatisfaction against wealth inequality in China grows, more of the wealthy can expect to be thrown under the bus of public opinion at the slighted sign of dissent towards the party.
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