In China, Elites Follow Different Rules

Foreign Policy’s Christina Larson contrasts the plight of young professionals in Beijing with the conspicuous consumption and misbehavior of the children of China’s elites, suggesting that an inequality of privilege has supplanted the Chinese dream of social mobility through merit:   

Could it possibly be true that a swath of people in China’s big cities is downwardly mobile, if one compared wages with living expenses? I asked Patrick Chovanec, an associate professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management in Beijing. Alas, he told me, it’s difficult to find much clarification in China’s famously fudgeable official statistics. (For instance, the official unemployment rate only includes individuals with urban hukous, or permanent residency permits — which excludes the most economically vulnerable.) Still, he noted: “If you perceive that you’re losing buying power — or have rising but unmet expectations — that’s when people get upset.… And this country, for a country growing at over 9 percent, is in a foul mood.”

Indeed, there is a palpable sense of frustration in Beijing, especially compared with the last time I lived here in 2008. You can see it on the dour faces on the metro, hear it in raspy voices at dinner conversations, and especially sense it in the new gruffness of taxi drivers, who no longer think ferrying people around town for 10 yuan, about $1.60, is such a good deal for them (their base fare hasn’t been raised). Still, it’s hard to rage against abstractions. It’s a lot easier to fume at obnoxious people.

No wonder, then, that in 2011 the Chinese media and Sina Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) buzzed nearly every month with salacious reports of China’s Paris Hilton-types — the sons and daughters of the wealthy and political elite, dangling opulent accessories and impoverished judgment — behaving badly in BMWs and Audis and typically expecting to get away with it, to boot.

See also previous CDT coverage of the offspring of China’s elites, known as “princelings,” who present a challenge to the Chinese Communist Party by embracing their wealth and privilege and becoming more visible at a time when the party is attempting to defend its populist image.