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In China, bragging about one’s wealth can lead to censorship

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He began by exploring the sauna built into the palatial bathroom of the hotel’s presidential suite. Then the video blogger went to the dining room, where a cook was waiting with a glittering steak. The next morning he woke up to a lobster breakfast, which he ate cross-legged in bed.

“Today’s bill is 108,876 kuai,” or more than $ 17,000, he said after checking out of the hotel in Chengdu, China, and waving his receipt at the camera. “I slept through the equivalent of several iPhones,” he chuckled.

The video was sticky, of course. Noticeable, definitely. Well, it’s also a violation of Chinese internet regulations.

The Chinese authorities have declared war on what is considered a “display of wealth”. China’s head of state Xi Jinping called for inequality. In positioning himself for a third term, Mr. Xi has presented himself as a man of the people and campaigned against deadlocked interests.

The financial regulators have taken action against the country’s technology giants and made pledges of loyalty and large donations. Tycoons were arrested on corruption charges. And online, authorities have ordered social media platforms to remove the hugely popular videos that illustrate the gap between the haves and the haves.

The hotel blogger has more than 28 million followers on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, by posting videos of visiting expensive hotels and tasting delicacies. But after being singled out by state media, he deleted those videos. His recent posts show how he tastes convenience store snacks. (He didn’t respond to requests for comment.)

“We will strengthen our management and increase the effectiveness of our raid so that Internet platforms feel like a sword is over their heads,” said Zhang Yongjun, a senior official with the Chinese cyberspace administration, at a press conference this year.

There is no clear definition of what constitutes bragging rights or wealth. While officials have cited a few specific examples, such as issuing receipts or over-ordering food, they have largely outlined some sort of “I know when I see it” rule.

“The standard is the effect that the content has,” said Mr. Zhang. “Can spreading this content inspire people to be healthy, ambitious, and work harder for a good life? Or does it correspond to the vulgar wishes of the people? “

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

Inequality in China is huge. According to the Credit Suisse Research Institute, one percent of the Chinese own 31 percent of the country’s assets. The coronavirus pandemic further exposed inequalities as the rich returned to luxury spending while other Chinese continued to struggle.

If not addressed, the imbalance could pose a threat to near-complete government control based on a promise of economic comfort. Excessive urban housing prices and accelerating competition for office jobs make many young people feel that the “China dream” is unattainable. Even Mr. Xi has referred to the rich-poor divide as an “important political issue” that affects the party’s legitimacy.

But the campaign against the display of wealth, which aims to contain the trappings of wealth – not wealth itself – underscores a broader question of how far Mr. Xi’s rhetoric will go. Despite his far-reaching power, Mr. Xi still has to employ tactics that may prove unpopular with the middle class or the elite, many of whom have party ties. Policies such as property and inheritance taxes have long since stalled and workers’ rights remain weak.

“It is more an attempt to appease the public discontent of certain actors without actually touching anyone seriously, at least for now,” said Zhang Jun, an assistant professor at the City University of Hong Kong who studies Chinese class politics Internet penetration.

Extravagant materialistic displays have long had an avid audience on the internet, with the Chinese internet being no exception. In a viral trend in 2018, Chinese users posted photos of themselves spread out on the floor surrounded by expensive items. An entire industry exists to help users look richer than they are.

The authorities began to pay attention last summer. In July 2020, the cyberspace administration announced a plan to “thoroughly clean up information that promotes bad values, such as comparing or displaying wealth, extravagant amusement, etc.”

The campaign was spurred by extensive state media coverage, with Xinhua, the state news agency, saying that displaying wealth “had spoiled the social atmosphere.” It has attracted new attention in recent weeks when Xiaohongshu, the app, invited users to shoot videos showing off wealth and introduced them to other viewers.

One of those invited was Yi Yang, a hostel owner in Dujiangyan, a small town in Sichuan Province. Last month, Ms. Yi, 35, shared a peaceful piano music video showing her husband gardening and packing bins while describing how they make their own furniture and grow their own vegetables. She contrasted her lifestyle with people bragging online about buying their first sports car or paying in full for sprawling mansions.

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

In an interview, Ms. Yi said she was afraid that young people watching eye-catching videos would develop unrealistic expectations. When they failed to attain similar material wealth, she said, “they will have doubts about society and about themselves.”

Others said concern about the display of wealth was exaggerated. On the social media platform Weibo, some users said the videos satisfied their curiosity or were just entertaining.

However, despite the government’s strong rhetoric, it is unclear how and how severely the anti-Reich campaign is being flaunted.

Douyin and Kuaishou were each fined approximately $ 31,000 in October for allowing an ad that authorities said was promoting “excessive consumption”.

Xiaohongshu announced last month that it had improved its wealth identification algorithm, but did not provide details. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

But the apps are still full of status symbols. A search for luxury brands on Xiaohongshu still yields tons of results. A blogger presented her 121 pairs of designer shoes. Another compared the merits of their Fendi, Burberry and Louis Vuitton scarves.

Compared to the total number of posts on these pages, the highlighted number is “basically nothing,” noted Professor Zhang.

And even if all of these items were eliminated, little would change in the actual distribution of wealth. “We all know that just because people don’t show pictures of their money, their cars, their handbags, and their jewelry doesn’t mean they don’t have money.” But for some critics of the wealth being on display is it maybe the point to flaunt on that, not on the wealth.

Jassie Chen, 38, who was invited by Xiaohongshu to make a video against the display of wealth, said she had no problem with celebrities promoting fashion houses or posting their wealthy friends about glamorous vacations or wearing expensive watches. They knew how to be subtle, said Ms. Chen, a Beijing university lecturer who usually blogs about career counseling.

Her main complaints were the posers – people who took photos with bags or cars that they didn’t actually own.

“In my opinion,” she said, “it is quite normal that some people have money and others don’t.

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