Why bragging about your wealth in China can get you censored

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He began by exploring the sauna, integrated into the lavish bathroom of the hotel’s presidential suite. Next, the video blogger moved on to the dining room, where a chef was waiting for him with a sparkling steak. The next morning, he woke up 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 leaving the hotel in Chengdu, China, waving his receipt in front of the camera. “I’ve slept the equivalent of multiple iPhones,” he laughed.

The video was out of date, of course. Ostentatious, certainly. Now, it is also a violation of Chinese internet regulation.

Chinese authorities have declared war on content deemed “to show off the wealth,” amid strong calls from Chinese leader Xi Jinping to tackle inequality. As Mr. Xi positions himself for a third term, he has presented himself as a man of the people, campaigning against entrenched interests.

Financial regulators have cracked down on the country’s tech giants, extracting pledges of loyalty and large donations. Tycoons have been arrested on corruption charges. And online, authorities have ordered social media platforms to clean up the hugely popular videos that clearly show the divide between have and have not.

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

“We will strengthen our management and increase the power of our repression, so that Internet platforms feel that there is a sword above their heads,” Zhang Yongjun, senior official in China’s cyberspace administration, said at the meeting. of a press conference this year.

There is no clear definition of what constitutes display or wealth. While managers presented a few specific examples, such as presenting receipts or ordering too much food, they largely described some sort of “I know it when I see it” rule.

“The standard is the effect of the content,” Zhang said. “Can posting this content inspire people to be healthy, ambitious, and work harder for a good life?” Or does it respond to the vulgar desires of the people? “

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

The inequalities in China are huge. One percent of Chinese own 31 percent of the country’s wealth, according to the Credit Suisse Research Institute. The coronavirus pandemic has further exposed the disparities, as the wealthy returned to luxury spending while other Chinese continued to struggle.

If not corrected, the imbalance could threaten the near total control of the authorities, which is based on a promise of economic comfort. Exorbitant prices for urban housing and increasing competition for white-collar jobs have left many young people feeling that the “Chinese Dream” is out of reach. Even Xi called the gap between rich and poor a “major political issue” affecting the legitimacy of the party.

But the campaign against the display of wealth, which emphasizes reducing the pitfalls of wealth – not wealth itself – highlights a larger question as to how far M’s rhetoric will go. Xi. Despite his considerable power, Xi has yet to adopt tactics that could prove unpopular with the middle class or elites, many of whom have ties to the party. Policies such as property taxes and inheritance taxes have long stalled and labor rights remain weak.

“Rather, it is all about appeasing the public discontent of some actors, without – at least for the moment – really seriously touching anyone’s cake,” said Zhang Jun, assistant professor at the University. from the city of Hong Kong, which studies Chinese class politics, about Internet repression.

Flamboyant materialistic displays have long found an enthusiastic audience online, with the Chinese Internet being no exception. In a viral trend in 2018, Chinese users posted photos of themselves sprawled on the floor surrounded by expensive items. An entire industry exists to help users appear richer than they are.

Last summer, authorities began to pay attention to it. In July 2020, the cyberspace administration announced a plan to “deep clean up information that promotes bad values ​​such as comparing or displaying wealth, extravagant entertainment, etc.” “

The campaign was boosted by widespread state media coverage, with Xinhua, the state news agency, claiming that the display of wealth “has rotted the social atmosphere.” In recent weeks, it gained new attention when Xiaohongshu, the app, urged users to make videos denouncing the display of wealth and promoted them to other viewers.

One of the guests was Yi Yang, owner of an inn in Dujiangyan, a small town in Sichuan Province. Last month, Ms. Yi, 35, shared a video, to peaceful piano music, of her husband gardening and packing won tons as 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. “It’s a real wealth.”

In an interview, Ms. Yi said she was concerned that young people watching flashy videos would develop unrealistic expectations. When they have failed to achieve similar material wealth, she said, “they will have doubts about the company and themselves.”

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

Yet despite the government’s strong rhetoric, it is unclear how and with what rigor the anti-wealth poster campaign is being applied.

Douyin and Kuaishou were each fined about $ 31,000 in October for authorizing an advertisement that authorities said promoted “binge drinking.”

Xiaohongshu announced last month that he had improved his algorithm to identify the display of wealth but did not give details. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

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

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

And even if all these positions were to disappear, she added, the actual distribution of wealth would not change much. “We all know that just because people don’t show pictures of their money, cars, purses and jewelry doesn’t mean they don’t have money. But for some critics of the display of wealth, targeting the display, not wealth, may be the point.

Jassie Chen, 38, who was invited by Xiaohongshu to make an anti-display of wealth video, said she had no problem with celebrities doing ads for fashion houses, or her wealthy friends posting. articles on glamorous vacations or wearing expensive watches. They knew how to be subtle, said Ms. Chen, a teacher at Peking University who normally blogs about career advice.

His main complaint was about the poseurs – people who took pictures with bags or cars they didn’t actually own.

“In fact, in my opinion,” she said, “that some people have money and some don’t, it’s very normal.”


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