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

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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.

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“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.

The latest crackdown on wealth-flaunting “seems largely symbolic and itself alone may barely have any material impact on improving distribution,” Tianlei Huang, the China Program coordinator at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, tells TIME. “What China really needs to do is more progressive and effective taxation and greater social transfers.”

China’s economic woes

In recent weeks, senior Chinese officials held urgent meetings with business leaders to discuss revitalizing the economy. The country’s youth unemployment rate has climbed to a record 20.4% in April, and then to 20.8% in May, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. (When officials revealed that they considered anyone working at least an hour a week to be employed, speculation abounded online that the real unemployment rate is in fact much higher.)

This has come as a rude awakening for millions of Chinese young adults, who have long been told that studying hard would come with the reward of financial stability. In response, Chinese authorities have urged them to swallow their pride and accept lower-end jobs—a proposition that has left many feeling betrayed.

Read More: China’s Aging Population Is a Major Concern. But Its Youth May Be an Even Bigger Problem

“In a context like today’s China, the wealth gap is so big that young people from an average family background realize that no matter how hard they try they can never reach that kind of wealth. So they just stop trying,” says Huang.

China’s Gini coefficient, which measures inequality, has decreased significantly since the 2000s, but continues to hover above 0.46, which by international standards signals a high level of income inequality.

“The showing off of wealth among wealthy people, especially those who work in the government and state companies, is like adding oil to fire,” says Shan. “It just reveals the hard truth of how unequal the society is.”

All about the optics

Set against this backdrop of disparity, even media portrayals of the poor have turned out to be a big no-no for a government that in 2021 declared “complete victory” in eradicating extreme poverty. Return to Dust, a critically acclaimed film released last year about an impoverished couple’s hardships in rural China, was abruptly scrubbed from streaming platforms weeks ahead of the Chinese Communist Party congress in October.

Alfred Wu, an associate professor who researches Chinese governance at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, tells TIME that China’s attempt to control narratives surrounding extreme wealth and poverty has more to do with politics than practicality.

“This is kind of a pure ideological concern by a socialist country. They want people to be more equal,” he says. “They want people to be good-spirited, contribute to society, [and not] just engage with materialism.”

“I don’t think in reality they actually fundamentally changed the situation,” he added, pointing to continuing regional wealth disparities.

Curating the optics surrounding the country’s inequality may be a bandaid to boost public morale, but it rests precariously on socio-economic frustrations simmering across Chinese society. While some may find schadenfreude in seeing the wealthy forced to leave their luxury bags at home under the banner of “common prosperity,” others remain painfully aware that curbing the rich doesn’t really do much to improve their own lives.

“I finally get it now,” one Weibo user wrote last month. “Common prosperity means laying off and cutting the salaries of high earners in tech, finance, and foreign companies, bringing them closer to the average; not improving the wages and welfare of those in lower and middle income jobs.”

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