The unflattering image of China’s wealthy


Thirty years after Deng Xiaoping said it was ok to allow some to get rich first, the annual “Hurun Wealth Report” released in Shanghai last month, showed almost 1 million people in China are worth more than 10 million yuan ($1.49 million). 

Hurun’s report was not received with celebrations of an approaching milestone; it instead unleashed another wave of deride-the-rich.

Hurun’s founder Rupert Hoogewerf is also the publisher of the “China Rich List”, which reveals the names of the China’s wealthiest individuals.

Hurun’s “Wealth Report” showed that more than 960,000 people – one in 1,400 – have personal assets of more than 10 million yuan. Almost half of them live in three major places: Beijng accounts for 17.7 percent, Guangdong Province 16.4 percent, while Shanghai’s share was 13.8 percent.

The numbers of million-and-a-half-aires jumped 9.7 percent since Hurun’s report last year. The Wealth Report showed 55 percent of them are business owners, while 20 percent are real estate speculators, 15 percent made their money trading stocks and only 10 percent are salaried executives.

Many experts and media commentators say the public’s ire is mainly aimed at speculators who seemingly got rich without contributing to the economy or society.

Online comments and traditional media commentators blamed rapidly rising housing prices on house-hoarding by developers.

“Developers never think about ordinary people. They know there is high demand. They’re just like vampires wringing every drop of blood from our bodies,” said Zhang Dongxiao, a 27-year-old accountant from Shanghai.

Legitimate wealth tarnished by corruption 

The unflattering image of the rich in China is mainly the result of how people perceive the wealthy earned their money. A survey by Renmin University of China showed only 5.3 percent of the thousands of respondents believed the rich obtained their wealth legally. This is often reinforced by the many media reports of bribery, stock fraud and corruption, making the wealthy the favorite punching bag of the dissatisfied.

Wei Jun, a 24-year-old man from Jiangsu Province, was sentenced to 20 months earlier this year after he smashed the window of two Mercedes-Benz in a Nanjing parking lot. He told the court that he had just been fired from a local restaurant where he earned only 1,000 yuan a month.

“Why can some people drive such good cars and I have to wander on the streets?” he asked the court. “I temporarily lost my balance,”he confessed.

 “The huge income gap between the rich and poor has caused social unrest and some psychological problems,” said Zhang Ming, a political science professor from Renmin University. 

This opinion is echoed by Xue Yong, the author of The hatred against the rich, who wrote that historically China was not anti-rich, but uneven development and little protection for the poor are reasons for much of the public vitriol aimed at the wealthy.

Even China’s much-loved scientist Yuan Longping, hasn’t been spared a public bashing over his wealth. Yuan developed hybrid rice plants in the 1970s, which significantly increased yields and helped alleviate the threat of famine in dozens of countries in Asia and Africa.

Yuan was pilloried on a Web posting that reported he had bought a car for near 1 million yuan from an auto show in Hunan Province, and that he already owned seven other luxury cars.

Before Yuan was able to discount the report as false, many netizens expressed their support saying they didn’t care if Yuan owned seven private jets.

A CCTV commentator noted the public’s green-eyed envy of the rich doesn’t extend to a man like Yuan who has made a great contribution to society and is seen as deserving of his wealth.

An official of the Beijing Administration for Industry and Commerce has ordered advertisers to cool it on promises of ostentatious extravagance, which was feared to be fueling sentiment against the wealthy and liable to increase public discontent.

Pan Zhichang, director of International Media Research Center from Nanjing University, said some real estate advertisements that promote a “Royal”, “Aristocratic” lifestyle are bound to disgruntle average wage earners.

“Forbidding such advertising is not enough, we have to solve this deep rooted problem,” said Xia Xueluan, a sociology professor from Peking University.

“Taking down advertisements won’t narrow the gap between the rich and the poor,” Xia said.

Getting rich; feeling vulnerable

The rich in China are also vulnerable to threats, physical violence and blackmail. The media has reported on numerous cases of wealthy people being forced to pay protection money and some have been murdered when they refused.

A former journalist-turned-publisher has decided the best way to protect her family and her wealth is to emigrate to the United State, even though she speaks little English and her husband has no intention of learning the language. She agreed to talk to the Global Times if she was not identified. “I worry about the future. I know a lot of wealthy people like me who don’t feel secure because they think there could be stability issues in China. We’re hedging our bets.”

She understands why some people might hate the rich, considering the reports of corruption and illegal means some of the wealthy have used. “Many people don’t realize, though, that most wealthy people got where they are because they had good ideas and worked hard for the success they have achieved,” she said.

The mother of two appreciates and fully enjoys being one of the lucky million or so who are leading the very good life in China. A chauffeur drives her to her office and three nannies help run her household. There’s horseback riding at the family’s country retreat on the weekends and her son attends an expensive private school.

She purposefully maintains a low public profile and makes sure she pays all required taxes. Worrying about maintaining her status and wealth is even harder than getting there, she said.

She’s still in a bit of shock that her former neighbor, Huang Guangyu, once listed as China’s wealthiest person is now serving 14 years in prison for stock fraud and insider trading when he was the head of the giant electronics retailer Gome. “What he did, everybody is doing. He must have had some very big enemies,” she said.

A sense of insecurity seems to be driving many of China’s rich to at least consider transferring their wealth abroad. China’s Merchants Bank recently reported that 60 percent of China’s millionaires say they would like to emigrate. The report claims that 27 percent of those with assets of 1 billion yuan have already emigrated to wealthier countries. The Beijing immigration center confirms that the number of investor emigrants has increased sharply over the past five years.

Well-known columnist Tong Dahuan wrote in China Youth Daily that the wealthy are the first group to be criticized when social conflicts are magnified. “So once the time is right, many of them choose to go to other countries where they can find relative fairness and a healthy environment,” he said. “That’s not a good sign, because it’s like we are helping cultivate fortunes only to see them flee to other countries.”

Bill Siggins contributed to this story.

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