Bling is best kept to yourself: China targets posts that show off wealth

He started by exploring the sauna, built into the palatial bathroom of the hotel’s presidential suite. Then the video blogger moved on to the dining room, where a chef waited with a glistening steak. The next morning, he awoke to a lobster breakfast, which he ate cross-legged in bed.

“Today’s bill: 108,876 kuai,” or more than $17,000, he said after checking out from the hotel in Chengdu, China, waving his receipt at the camera. “I slept away the equivalent of multiple iPhones,” he giggled.

The video was tacky, sure. Ostentatious, definitely. Now, it’s also a violation of Chinese internet regulations.

Chinese authorities have declared war on content deemed to be “flaunting wealth,” amid sweeping calls by Chinese President Xi Jinping to combat inequality. As Xi positions himself for a third term, he has cast himself as a man of the people, leading a campaign against entrenched interests.

Financial regulators have cracked down on the country’s tech giants, extracting pledges of loyalty and hefty donations. Tycoons have been detained on corruption accusations. And online, authorities have ordered social media platforms to scrub the hugely popular videos that make clear the gap between the haves and have-nots.

The hotel blogger amassed more than 28 million followers on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, by posting videos where he toured expensive hotels and sampled delicacies. But after being singled out by state media, he deleted those videos. His recent posts show him trying convenience store snacks. (He did not respond to requests for comment.)

“We will strengthen our management and increase the power of our crackdown, to make internet platforms feel there is a sword above their heads,” Zhang Yongjun, a senior official at China’s cyberspace administration, said at a news conference this year.

There is no clear definition of what constitutes flaunting or wealth. Although officials have laid out a few specific examples, such as showcasing receipts or over-ordering food, they have largely outlined a sort of “I know it when I see it” rule.

“The standard is the effect the content has,” Zhang said. “Can the spread of this content inspire people to be healthy, ambitious and work harder for a beautiful life? Or does it cater to people’s vulgar desires?”

Douyin, the video platform, said this year that it had closed about 4,000 accounts in two months, including ones that posted videos of people “scattering renminbi.” Xiaohongshu, an Instagram-like lifestyle app, announced last month that it had flagged nearly 9,000 wealth-flaunting posts from May to October.

Inequality in China is vast. One per cent of Chinese own 31% of the country’s wealth, according to Credit Suisse Research Institute. The coronavirus pandemic further exposed disparities, as the rich returned to luxury spending while other Chinese continued to struggle.

If unaddressed, the imbalance could pose a threat to authorities’ near-total control, which rests on a promise of economic comfort. Exorbitant urban-housing prices and accelerating competition for white-collar jobs have left many young people feeling that the “China Dream” is out of reach. Even Xi has called the rich-poor gap a “major political matter” touching on the party’s legitimacy.

But the campaign against wealth flaunting — with its focus on tamping down the trappings of wealth, not the wealth itself — underscores a broader question about how far Xi’s rhetoric will go. Despite his sweeping power, Xi has yet to embrace tactics that could prove unpopular with the middle class or elites, many of whom have links to the party. Policies such as property and inheritance taxes have long stalled, and labour rights remain weak.

“It’s more trying to appease public dissatisfaction from certain actors, without — at least at this moment — really seriously touching on anyone’s cake,” Zhang Jun, an assistant professor at the City University of Hong Kong who studies Chinese class politics, said of the internet crackdown.

Flamboyant materialist displays have long found eager audiences online, with the Chinese internet no exception. In a viral trend in 2018, Chinese users posted photos of themselves splayed on the ground surrounded by expensive objects. An entire industry exists to help users look richer than they are.

Authorities began paying attention. In July 2020, the cyberspace administration announced a plan to “thoroughly clean up information that promotes bad values such as comparing or flaunting wealth, extravagant amusement, etc.”

The campaign was spurred on by extensive state media coverage, with Xinhua, the state news agency, saying that wealth flaunting “rotted the social atmosphere.” In recent weeks, it gained a fresh round of attention as Xiaohongshu, the app, invited users to make videos denouncing wealth flaunting and promoted them to other viewers.

One of those invited was Yi Yang, a hostel owner in Dujiangyan, a small city in Sichuan province. Last month, Yi, 35, shared a video, set to peaceful piano music, of her husband gardening and wrapping wontons while she described how they made their own furniture and grew their own vegetables. She contrasted her lifestyle with people bragging online about buying their first sports car or paying in full for sprawling villas.

“We have dreams, we have flowers, we have freedom,” she said. “This is real wealth.”

In an interview, Yi said she worried that young people watching flashy videos would develop unrealistic expectations. When they failed to achieve similar material wealth, she said, “they’ll have doubts about society and about themselves.”

Others have said concerns about wealth flaunting are overblown. On social media platform Weibo, some users said the videos satisfied their curiosity or were merely entertaining.

Still, despite the government’s strong rhetoric, it is unclear how, and how stringently, the anti-wealth-flaunting campaign is being enforced.

Douyin and Kuaishou were each fined about $31,000 in October for allowing an advertisement that authorities said promoted “excessive consumption.”

Xiaohongshu announced last month that it had improved its algorithm for identifying wealth flaunting but did not give specifics. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

But the apps are still awash in status symbols. A search for luxury brands on Xiaohongshu still turns up countless results. One blogger showcased her 121 pairs of designer shoes. Another compared the merits of her Fendi, Burberry and Louis Vuitton scarves.

Compared with the total number of posts on these sites, the number flagged is “basically nothing,” noted Zhang.

And even if all those posts were to disappear, she added, little would change about the actual distribution of wealth. “We all know, just because people are not showing pictures of their money, their cars, their handbags and their jewellery, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have the money.” But for some critics of wealth flaunting, targeting the flaunting, not the wealth, is perhaps the point.

Jassie Chen, 38, who was invited by Xiaohongshu to make a video against wealth flaunting, said she had no problem with celebrities doing ads for fashion houses, or her rich friends posting about glamorous vacations or wearing expensive watches. They knew how to be subtle, said Chen, a university lecturer in Beijing who normally blogs about career advice.

Her main complaint was with the poseurs — people who took photos with bags or cars that they did not actually own.

“Actually, in my opinion,” she said, “for some people to have money and other people not to — this is very normal.”

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