Why China's 1% Is Now Discreetly Hiding Its Wealth

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The elite is conspicuously embracing a less conspicuous style.

RTX4TAR-615.jpg Three businessmen walk past a labourer resting on a bicycle in Beijing. (David Gray/Reuters)

Not so long ago, wealthy Chinese would keep the price tags dangling off their sunglasses, wear their ties back to front to display the designer label and celebrate every business deal with that showiest of French wines, Chateau Lafite Rothschild Bordeaux, sometimes mixed with Coca Cola. They also had a reputation for being daft with their money, buying highly leveraged structured derivatives from Hong Kong private banks that offered eye popping returns or unlimited losses. They were known as the bao fa hu (暴发户) which translates as "newly rich" or "upstart" (one of a number of Chinese modern stereotypes).

That image is so 2009. Today's upmarket Chinese consumer is hiding his wealth -- for now. The reason is partly political. China's top leadership will change next year, and with it, a lot of people's fortunes. Meanwhile, having lost heavily on derivatives during the autumn 2008 stock market crash, China's wealthy elite are also taking a sensible approach to banking. And they are even experimenting with less obvious wine brands.

"Many Chinese business people got their money honestly, but now they do not want the scrutiny and attention that comes from displaying wealth," says Sunny Wong Yat Ming, managing director of Trinity Holding International, a Hong Kong-listed company that owns the Cerruti 1881 and Gieves & Hawkes brands.

The super rich are going underground, as political power shifts in unknown directions. Since former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai was dramatically forced out of his post and expelled from the party, and because China's top leadership is changing, it is no longer smart to show off wealth. China is run on so-called "guanxi" (关系 ) which means "relationship" and, for business leaders, means that if you are protected by the right powerful official you can flaunt your wealth and status. Now, not only are the tectonic plates of political power shifting, no one is quite sure what the results will be. The bao fa hu are, quite literally, in hiding.

This scandal over an ostensibly low-paid government official who was pictured wearing a range of designer watches has got people scared. Now Chinese public relations companies sell a service to scrub blog posts or photos from the internet, just in case the anti-corruption police start looking for evidence.

Not everyone is avoiding the limelight. China's luxury market can be split into three groups, says Paul French, chief China market strategist for Mintel:

You have the secretaries who can only afford a handbag, then the provincial new money types who are just discovering luxury and want to dress head to toe in Louis Vuitton -- the Shanghainese call these people "potato dumplings." Then there is this smaller, harder to define group right at the top. Everyone wants these customers as they have most of the money. But they are becoming more aware of being caught out for something by the [Communist] party disciplinarians or outed for extreme wealth on the internet.

A joke often told by Hong Kong residents about rich mainland Chinese tourists goes along the lines of: "They must sell superglue in designer stores so these mainlanders can cover themselves in it and roll around the shop." The joke conjures up a stereotypical image of a mainland Chinese man wearing one brand only, very visibly, from head to toe. But at the very top end of the income ladder, this joke is dated. Now it only applies to potato dumplings.

But the richest group still favors discreet luxury. China's wealthiest are extremely unlikely to stop buying high-end designer goods. But brands that are very established now in China are not doing quite as well as less blingy, more bespoke, labels. Burberry and Louis Vuitton are being challenged (paywall) by Gieves & Hawkes.

"One thing I've noticed recently in Shanghai is very wealthy people are increasingly wearing Brioni suits," says David Lin, who is Taiwanese and runs Whitesun Equity Partners, a buyout house focusing on Chinese consumer industries with offices in Taipei and Shanghai. He is referring to the Italian designer Brioni, whose suits can cost tens of thousands of dollars yet, according to Lin, is still "not a brand that makes it obvious you are wearing their brand."

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Naomi Rovnick is a Quartz correspondent based in Taiwan. She is a former senior business writer for the South China Morning Post and she won a 2011 Society of Publishers in Asia award for excellence in business writing.

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