The rich in China have only become richer in recent years, leaving others feeling left behind
Is 650 yuan ($101, £72) enough to cover a day’s meals?
Not according to Su Mang, the former editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar China, whose comments about it while on a reality TV show enraged Chinese social media.
“We have to eat better, I cannot eat with such low standards,” she added on the show 50km Taohuawu, which has 15 celebrities living together for 21 days.
Appalled by her comments, netizens pointed out that their own daily meal allowance is usually less than 30 yuan.
Although Ms Su, known as “China’s Devil Wears Prada”, has since clarified that it was all a “misunderstanding” – the 650 yuan was for her entire time on the show, she said – the public was not convinced.
“She can try to explain it away, but the truth is that celebrities are elitist without realising it,” one person wrote on microblogging platform Weibo.
Hers is only the latest case of public anger directed at a personality over their wealth.
Earlier this year, Annabel Yao, the younger daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, infuriated the internet when she suggested she had lived a life of struggle.
“I’ve never treated myself as a so-called ‘princess’… I think I’m like most people my age, I had to work hard, study hard, before I could get into a good school,” she had said in a glitzy 17-minute video documentary announcing her singing career.
Sharing the film on her Weibo account, the 23-year-old, whose father is worth an estimated $1.4bn, said that signing to an entertainment company was a “special birthday present” she had given to herself.
For years, China’s glamorous rich have been known to be ostentatious, showing off their luxury cars and handbags online – often to the envy of their followers.
But increasingly, any kind of wealth flaunting – intentional or otherwise – is being met with hostility and disdain.
People like Ms Su and Ms Yao are being targeted because many believe that celebrities as well as the so-called fuerdai – second generation rich kids – are simply not deserving of their sky-high incomes.
“Compared with the stars and their seemingly ‘easy’ jobs’, people will complain about how hard they work and how little they earn,” said Deakin University’s Dr Jian Xu, who researches Chinese media culture.
Dr Haiqing Yu, a media studies professor at Melbourne’s RMIT University, added that “Su Mang’s comments about her meals made people angry because they are peeling the scab that China’s trying to hide” – that some people have way too much, while others get by with very little.
The wealth gap in China is stark.
While the country’s average annual income is 32,189 yuan ($5,030; £3,560), or around 2,682 yuan per month, according to the National Bureau Of Statistics, Beijing has also become home to more billionaires than any other city in the world.
According to wealth tracker Hurun Report, China’s rich listers earned a record $1.5tn in 2020, which is roughly half the size of the UK’s GDP.
For the rich to blatantly show off their assets is thus instantly seen as tone deaf. While this is common for most nations with an income inequality problem, China is in a uniquely awkward position, experts say.
For a long time, people were under the impression that they could achieve “common prosperity” – something which former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping said would be the goal even if it meant certain people and regions becoming rich first.
“But after more than 40 years since the country’s opening up, rich people are only getting richer, leaving others far behind and feeling disenchanted and powerless,” Dr Xu said.
Sometimes the anger is exacerbated because of what he calls an “expectation for celebrities to contribute more (to society) as they are publicly known and have symbolic power”.
Last month for instance, there was outrage when it was revealed that actress Zheng Shuang was paid around 2m yuan per day for a TV role, totalling 160m yuan for the entire project.
“What is the concept of 160m yuan? Ordinary employees earning 6,000 yuan a month need to work continuously for 2,222 years, probably from the Qin Dynasty,” someone wrote on Weibo.
But the public were even more upset because Ms Zheng was already mired in controversy. Earlier this year, she was embroiled in a row over surrogacy – illegal in China – when it was alleged that she had abandoned two children born to surrogates abroad.
For someone to be earning so much money when she is not deemed to be a good role model is therefore highly problematic.
This is also why, in 2018, there was little sympathy for A-lister Fan Bingbing when she was held under house arrest for tax evasion, even though the actress was one of the country’s most popular stars.
The art of the humblebrag
Contempt for ostentation is also linked to the notion that it signals a lack of culture, experts say.
As China’s middle class has grown, educated urbanites interpret wealth-flaunting “as a lack of sophistication or even having ‘low class’ origins,” Dr John Osburg, author of Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China’s New Rich, told the BBC.
“It’s a fraught endeavour,” he said, adding that doing so is also a sign of “insecurity” about one’s social position.
Still, the country’s appetite for luxury is not going away anytime soon.
According to market research firm Euromonitor International, China has surpassed Japan as the leading personal luxury market in Asia Pacific, and is expected to see sales growth return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year.
The key, then, is for the rich to be able to strike the ultimate balancing act – to indicate success but in a more low-profile manner.
Dr Yu noted how, for some, it has spawned a whole movement involving humblebragging. “Some of the rich now try to show off in a veiled way, instead of just showing pictures of material goods,” she said.
For example, influencer MengQiqi77 – known for sharing regular updates of her luxurious lifestyle – once “complained” on Weibo that there weren’t enough electric car charging stations in her neighbourhood. “So we had no choice but to move to a bigger house with a private garage for my husband’s Tesla,” she wrote.
Another time, she commented that her husband was “too thrifty” for choosing to wear a Zegna cashmere suit costing “only 30,000 yuan”.
Of course, it was not long before such posts also struck a nerve among netizens.
Critics have since mocked her posts, even giving them a name: “Versailles literature”. The trending term was inspired by Japanese manga The Rose Of Versailles, based on 18th-century Queen Marie Antoinette’s lavish life, and for months, has sparked joke write-ups from netizens imitating her writing style.
One disgruntled netizen suggested a way to annoy a Versailles literature writer. “Just pretend that you didn’t notice whatever it is they were trying to show off,” he wrote on the Quora-like site Zhihu.
Looks like there is no easy solution for the rich and famous.
/BBC — AdChoiceTV News