First, who the hell are the fuerdai? They’re the super-rich, younger generation of China’s nouveaux-riche. Having spoiled kids who show off their wealth isn’t anything new, but it’s newer in places like China and Russia. Or rather, it’s newer on the scale that we’re seeing it, thanks to two huge communist or former communist superpowers cannonballing into the Capitalist Treasure Fleet that is the global economy.
Fuerdai translates to: rich second generation. And the amount of money these kids have is staggering, frankly.
They have elite groups, lavish parties, gigantic homes, airplanes and cars and everything money can buy, including seaside sex parties and drugs. What they don’t have is the relative discretion of their Western counterparts, and that’s where the problems start. American and European mega-rich children have the benefit of parents and grandparents who have grown up with a precautionary stance toward visibility. There is no less grandeur, no fewer material possessions in the West, but by and large they’re shielded from the public eye.
In that way, Europeans and Americans have managed to avoid some of the backlash that the fuerdai are feeling. It’s an example that the fuerdai have been slow to absorb.
In the last year alone, it seems like every week there’s a report out of China about some twenty-year-old multimillionaire making an ass of themselves. They’re sort of the Paris Hiltons of China.
Images like this, where the son of China’s wealthiest man displays the gold plated Apple Watches he purchased for his dog really caused a surge of public outrage.
But that’s not the whole story. There are a series of interesting changes sweeping through China these days, like the recent propaganda show glorifying the youth of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and a ‘morality’ directive to prohibit things on television programs like profanity and depictions of gay relationships and cleavage. Apparently, if you don’t depict homosexuality on television, then it doesn’t exist, right? Whew! Problem solved. But cleavage? Really? Watch the plunge on that neckline, Chinese producers, because it’s gone. And don’t forget music, and websites, where certain morality prohibitions warn of serious punishment for dissenters. Censorship is alive and well and working overtime in China, which put twenty-nine journalists behind bars in 2015 for a variety of offenses. And that doesn’t even include a cohort of bloggers, activists, and civil rights lawyers who have been arrested, charged, and imprisoned.
One can’t help but see a pattern here. Since Hong Kong reverted back to Chinese control in 1997 there has been a notable trickle of Western culture, which feels like a sociological infection to the Chinese leadership. It also coincides with an unprecedented boom in Chinese business. There have also been scandals that have rocked the very party leadership. You have the NPC — the National People’s Congress, which comprises the legislative branch, but nothing gets done without the say-so of the leadership. By the time something gets to the NPC, it’s more or less already been decided on.
That’s an older infographic, but one that shows how the trickle down effect works. So when scandal rocks the leadership, as in the case of Communist Party Chief Bo Xilai and Security Chief Zhou Yongkang, Xi Jinping makes examples of the offenders. The message being: look no further, the leadership is solid.
So solid, in fact, that they spent much of last year systematically eliminating outspoken Hong Kong booksellers. Allegedly. It’s like something out of Orwell, honestly. China uses former Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping’s “One Country, Two Systems” approach to government, which means that while most of mainland China operates under socialism, places like Macau and Hong Kong retain their capitalist status. Hong Kong also retains things like citizens’ rights, parliamentary governance, their own currency (the Hong Kong Dollar) and most importantly: freedom of speech. The agreement made between Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher stipulated that these rights would be maintained for a period of fifty years, ending in 2047.
But you get the sense that those timelines are chafing the current leadership. When five prominent and outspoken Hong Kong booksellers vanish in a matter of months, all of whom carry Hong Kong passports and at least one British passport, and then magically reappear in Mainland China pleading guilty to other crimes like hit and run and confessing willingly on video that they did it all ‘under their own initiative?’ I mean, it doesn’t take a genius to put it all together. And it’s pretty sinister.
So why do the fuerdai matter? Because they’re loud and in your face and a constant reminder of a changing China, one where no one knows if the future holds a more capitalist bent or one where the leadership tries to rein in its citizens. And the new wealth of China knows it, which is why they’re parking their children overseas. Vancouver, primarily, has seen a boom in Chinese property purchases, but Toronto now seems to be on the radar as well. In Vancouver, a huge percentage of home purchases over 5 million dollars listed the owner as “homemaker” or “student.” And 82% of those purchases did not require a mortgage.
And now, some of these fuerdai have their own online reality show in Vancouver.
It’s not a lifestyle that necessarily exemplifies the finer parts of a revered culture that is several millennia old. How is it that something as ancient and glorious as China feels like it’s in a relative infancy when it comes to dealing with things like fuerdai?
Because they haven’t had their contemporary social revolution yet. Yes, while flower children in America were yelling “Hell No, We Won’t Go,” their Chinese counterparts were forming Red Guard groups around the country to support Mao Zedong and the Great Cultural Revolution. And that was key because the Communists were able to enlist and recruit the youth of the country to support them: a youth that decidedly did not have access to social media.
In a country of 1.4 billion people, one would think the antics of these entitled few might just be catching the eye of the hundreds of millions of have-nots. That’s what the leadership is terrified of. That a growing number of Chinese citizens will see the corruption at the highest levels and wonder quietly if it isn’t time for a change. In subtle ways, this is already happening. A recent panel grilled China’s pollution czar in a way that hadn’t been seen before. Demanding why he didn’t have answers to basic questions like “where is the pollution coming from.” China’s pollution is so horrific that it kills 4400 people a day, a full 17% of Chinese deaths, and people are getting fed up by it. People are being killed by the very air they breathe. It’s like an entire country with the public works know-how of Flint, Michigan.
They’re also getting fed up with pictures of twenty-somethings burning money. Last year, Jinping sent seventy fuerdai to a training session in East China’s Fujian province to raise their awareness of social responsibility and patriotism. Sessions like this have been in place since 2013, and yet the continual bombardment of the fuerdai’s rich-kid photos on Weibo (China’s preeminent social network) have only continued to grow.
At some point, the haves and the have-nots are going to come to a head.
So can that confrontation provoke change without resorting to violence, a la the Velvet Revolution? Hong Kong has certainly set the tone with several non-violent pro-democracy protests in the spirit of Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. But their future may be in even more jeopardy than mainlanders, especially with the spate of bookseller ‘disappearances’ that fly in the face of the fifty-year business-as-usual mandate. That deadline of 2047 and embracing China’s assertive nationalism looms large.
Whether the leadership of ‘Daddy Xi’ and the people of China decide to row the ship of state in the same direction remains to be seen, but these are interesting days in the East. On Weibo, a small group of very visible Marie Antoinettes doesn’t care whether you have cake or not. They have most of it, and don’t care who knows. Any student of history will tell you that that sort of decadence has an inherent shelf life, and to that end, the most loathed part of the population may very well be the tinder that ignites a fire of change.