Articles concerning the frivolity of bountiful wealth have always been a staple for journalists seeking to fill column-inches with cautionary tales of our increasingly material society – Whether they be reports six-figure corporate bar bills or rumours of lottery winners blowing millions on demolition derbies in their back garden.
It’s unsurprising to learn that recent experience in a booming China appears to be much the same – Otherwise ordinary people being thrust into a world of untold riches, throwing around their hard-earned as if it were going out of fashion. In the following article, which originally appeared in the Chinese Financial Times, Mure Dickie tells of mixed attitudes towards this explosion in Chinese prosperity, and leaves open the question of how China’s aspirations can be responsibly reconciled with its copious consumption:
When Bank of Beijing issued shares last month, among the beneficiaries was a 10-year-old called Zheng Yuxuan, who first invested when no more than a toddler and who is now a multi-millionaire. Lots of Chinese are making big money. Forbes magazine found 66 dollar billionaires in China this year, up from 15 last year.
Alibaba.com, an internet company, has just raised $1.5bn (£714m), for example, creating a host of new customers for the Bentley and Maserati dealerships in its corporate home town of Hangzhou. And as long as little Yuxuan and the 83 other under-18 shareholders in Bank of Beijing can access their wealth, they will not want for ways to spend it.
But not all onlookers are enjoying the current show of conspicuous Chinese consumption. A series of semi-rhyming text messages circulating on mobile phones and the internet recently suggest conflicted feelings among a population that has seen inequality grow even as general living standards rise. "When we get money, we’ll drink bean milk and eat greasy bread sticks, dipping them in white sugar or red sugar, whichever we damn want. We’ll buy two bowls of bean milk, drink one and throw the other away," runs one of the half-envious, half-mocking text messages.
But China’s rich are far past the bean milk stage, with some paying $17 for an imported apple or Rmb1.7m (£109,000) for a car number plate. "When I get money, I’ll buy a luxury car, a Mercedes Benz or a BMW, whatever I want. I’ll buy two at a time, one to drive and the other to tow along behind," runs a text message riposte.
Still, most Chinese seem more focused on making their own fortunes, rather than resenting the success of others.
"When we get money, we’ll drink beer and eat barbecue. We’ll eat meat and drink pricey beer, whatever we damn want," writes one anonymous text messenger. "We’ll buy two bottles of beer, drink one – and then drink the other one."
The wealth of people such as little Yuxuan and the Alibaba team may get the attention, but China’s economic success should really be measured by how it meets such modest meat-and-beer aspirations.