Quote of the Day: “Stop Obsessing About Ordinary People’s ‘Pocket Change.’ They Know Better Than You Where That Money Ought to Be Spent.”

A recent WeChat post from oft-controversial entrepreneur, publicity hound, and philanthropist Chen Guangbiao urging the Chinese government to keep its hands off people’s pocketbooks has attracted many supportive comments from social media users. Chen’s message about how the government should stimulate domestic consumption boils down to this: let ordinary people decide how to spend their scant disposable income, and instead focus on broader issues such as encouraging the wealthy to contribute more to the “common prosperity”; strengthening the social safety net; and stabilizing income, employment, and the housing market.

Chen’s post, “Rational Consumption Is the Bedrock of a Strong Nation,” contained six suggestions for Chinese bureaucrats and policymakers:

  1. Keep an eye on the wallets of the wealthy and find ways to make them contribute more to the “common prosperity.”
  2. Stop obsessing about ordinary people’s ‘pocket change.’ That’s the hard-earned savings they’ve scraped together to support their elderly parents, keep their kids in school, and use as a bulwark against potential unemployment or serious illness. They know better than you where that money ought to be spent, and they don’t need you lecturing them about it.
  3. Consumption requires a stable source of income, so you should think about how to provide people with stable jobs and higher incomes.
  4. Consumption requires a strong social safety net, so you should think about how to resolve the problems of affordable housing, elder care, and the high cost of medical treatment.
  5. Hard work and thrift are admirable Chinese traditions and should not be abandoned just like that.
  6. Getting rid of used cars and home appliances is not only an enormous waste of resources, but also pollutes the environment. Don’t lose sight of this fact just for the sake of “trading in the old for the new.” [Chinese]

Chen, who grew up deeply impoverished but is now conspicuously wealthy, ended his post by inviting government bureaucrats and policymakers to “step out of your climate-controlled offices” and “come with me to better understand the real lives of ordinary grassroots people.” Written under the folksy moniker “Brother Biao,” Chen’s six-item list drew many admiring responses from WeChat users, some of whom praised him for speaking truth to power

袁同学123456: The fact that [government workers] earning five-digit monthly salaries, enjoying free medical insurance, and eating cheap subsidized meals at the office (for only three or four yuan a pop) are eyeing the pockets of laborers who subsist on just three or four thousand yuan a month is ridiculous, utterly ridiculous …

忧桑的牢府: Brother Biao has risen in my estimation!

哇锅锅: Damn, people who speak the truth are an endangered species.

迪克牛仔男孩: They’ve rounded up everyone who spoke the truth.

脸上有肉666: There aren’t many people left who know how to speak the truth.

屁孩还年轻: [The government’s logic] in a nutshell: “Let them eat cake.”

王安-王安: Well said. Officials and bureaucrats just feign ignorance. [Chinese]

Chen’s post and the supportive responses from netizens are a reflection of the structural problems that continue to plague China’s post-pandemic economic recovery. This week brought news of better-than-expected first-quarter 2024 GDP growth, but it appears to have been driven largely by manufacturing and external demand, and questions remain about whether this will translate into broader prosperity for everyday citizens. As mentioned by some of the social media users who responded to Chen’s WeChat post, the Chinese government seems intent on pursuing policies designed to get Chinese consumers to “loosen their purse strings,” rather than enacting deeper structural reforms to the market-economy or bolstering the social safety net—actions that could stimulate consumption by giving Chinese households a greater sense of stability and confidence.

As CDT has documented, online Chinese-language content touching on meaningful political-economic reforms or offering prescriptions for rescuing the ailing economy continues to be vigorously censored. Recently deleted content includes a Weibo essay blaming China’s stagnating economic growth on “a failure of political reform” and likening the Party-state to gangsters; a WeChat post by Tsinghua University sociologist Sun Liping suggesting “Three Simple Points” to revive the economy; another WeChat post about a Guangzhou public opinion poll showing record dissatisfaction with the state of the economy, job prospects, and anticipated income; and “Ten Questions About the Private Economy,” a discussion between four prominent Chinese economists that was posted to the well-respected WeChat finance account Caijing 11.” There was an example of retroactive censorship—the disappearance of a 2016 People’s Daily Online article confidently predicting that China would enter the club of “high-income” nations by 2024—and the Weibo censorship of a Singaporean paper’s blistering opinion piece arguing that China’s current economic malaise is a product of overly centralized leadership with Xi at its core. 

Chen Guangbiao’s WeChat post about consumption, while not targeted by censors as of this post’s publication, does mark something of a departure for the audacious, generally pro-government, pro-CCP entrepreneur. As previously noted, the plain-spoken Chen is no stranger to controversy. After founding the recycling company that made him his fortune, Chen came to public attention for personally rescuing 13 people after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and carrying 200 bodies from the rubble. His contributions to rescue efforts after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami earned him the ire of some anti-Japanese nationalists in China. His past endeavors have ranged from the audacious (a mooted billion-dollar purchase of The New York Times and a bid to demolish the quake-damaged San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge) to the misleading (a reneged-on promise to pay $300 each to a group of unhoused people in New York) to the headline-grabbing (selling cans of “fresh air” to bring attention to the problem of air pollution in China). Chen is also known for philanthropic projects with decidedly pro-CCP themes: he once offered two million dollars to fund reconstructive plastic surgery in the U.S. for an (alleged) former Falun Gong adherent and her daughter, who he claimed had self-immolated and later recanted their religious beliefs. That story was the subject of a leaked censorship directive, translated by CDT in 2014, from China’s State Council Information Office: “All websites must find and delete the Tencent article ‘At U.S. Press Conference, Chen Guangbiao Offers 2 Million USD to Self-Immolators for Plastic Surgery.’”


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