June 19, 2024

China’s Solution to Inequality? Cracking Down on Displays of Wealth and Poverty

China’s Solution to Inequality? Cracking Down on Displays of Wealth and Poverty

China’s Solution to Inequality? Cracking Down on Displays of Wealth and Poverty

BY KOH EWE
23 June 2023

High earners in China’s financial sector may be walking into their offices with a little less pizazz, after financial firms told employees to tone down on flaunting wealth, be it posting photos of their fancy meals on social media or showing up to work in expensive clothes.

This recent wave of austerity measures came after authorities warned bankers in March to steer away from “hedonistic” lifestyles, Reuters reported earlier this week. But China’s campaign to censor affluence has been in full swing for at least a decade.

Back in 2013, as public anger simmered over the country’s yawning wealth gap, authorities banned the advertisements of luxury products on state radio and television channels. In 2021, social media sites in China removed thousands of videos and accounts that featured large amounts of cash and luxury items. And just last year, a state-owned investment bank asked its employees to stop flying business class.

It’s not just displays of wealth that Beijing wants to make disappear. Content about the lives of people living in poverty has also been subjected to sweeping censorship, the New York Times reported in March, citing the erasure of a viral video of a retiree living on a monthly pension of $14.50 and a singer’s tongue-in-cheek song on dismal job prospects.

“The government has long realized that [economic inequality is] a threat, and they need to do something,” Shan Wei, a senior research fellow of Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore, tells TIME. “But so far, I think what they have successfully done is control the flow of information on inequality issues.”

The ongoing crusade to stop China’s rich from doing rich people things—and to try to keep poverty out of sight and out of mind—is closely linked to President Xi Jinping’s mantra of “common prosperity,” his sweeping pitch to reign in the excesses of capitalism and corruption in Chinese society. Targets of this campaign range from bankers who have had their salaries slashed to business tycoons who have been secretively detained to even mooncake companies that sell overpriced baked goods with “excessive packaging.”

Yet, despite all these measures, many Chinese people today remain exasperated at a lack of social mobility in the country, as the Chinese economy finds itself in the throes of a sluggish post-pandemic recovery.

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