The Growing Disdain for China's Super-Rich

Class warfare breaks out on social media.

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Opening day at China's first Morgan sport cars showroom in Shanghai, on October 25, 2012. (Reuters)

For a China still undergoing rapid economic development, a new and divisive character has emerged: the wealthy young scion. Children who come from money in China, colloquially called fu'erdai, are often associated with many negative stereotypes.

Fu'erdai literally translates to "rich second generation" and are generally either guan'erdai, meaning "government official second generation;" xing'erdai, meaning "super-star second generation;" or hong'erdai, children whose families have strong roots in the Communist Party and can "eat from both plates."

Perhaps the most representative incident of backlash against fu'erdai occurred in 2010, when the 22 year old Li Qimin, intoxicated and speeding in his luxury car, hit a college girl and killed her. When apprehended, he shouted "My father is Li Gang!" referring to a well-known local official. The phrase quickly went viral, and to this day represents fu'erdai arrogance.

A recent case that angered millions of Chinese microbloggers was that of Li Tianyi, who was both fu'erdai and hong'erdai. Li Tianyi, the 17-year-old son of famous Chinese general and singer Li Shuangjiang, was prosecuted for his involvement in a gang rape. Many Chinese netizens saw Li Tianyi's crime as proof that their negative feelings about privileged families were right, and stoked their worries that the privileged will always be above the law in Chinese society. The case of Li Tianyi and Li Shuangjiang differs from those of other rich and powerful families because Li Shuangjiang's popular "red songs" from the Cultural Revolution praise the Party's greatness. In this case, online criticism was directed both at Li's wealth and his political privilege.

Even the People's Daily, a state-run media outlet, recognized the significance of the issue: "Multiple incidents involving 'keng die' [children whose misdeeds have tarnished their fathers' reputations] have become hot-button issues in society, because of who they are and because of the violence or arrogance involved. Moreover, the era they live in is characterized by a public trust gap that stems from China's current class divisions, and we must build a bridge to re-build that trust."

Anger among the public is directed not just at these individuals, but at an unaccountable justice system. As user @ 破破的桥 wrote on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, "We already have a society that lacks trust. Do you trust the police? No, they are corrupt. Witnesses? No, also corrupt. Judges? No, they listen to the people in power. Do you trust government agencies? No, they only follow orders."

As fu'erdai increasingly become stand-ins for this lack of accountability, social media is becoming a dangerous place for children of the wealthy. A few days ago, photos posted by a 16-year-old fu'erdainamed Zhang Jiale went viral online, with many Web users ogling at his lifestyle and trying to investigate his family background. Chinese netizens have often conducted "human-flesh searches," probing every detail of a person's internet history, to expose corruption and other crimes. Thus far, Web users have not come up with any information to implicate Zhang Jiale.

Xu Danei, a columnist for the Chinese-language version of the Financial Times, cautioned:

In this society which has lost its accountability, [fu'erdai] must be deeply aware that they should not give the other side a chance. Enjoying their high lives, they must stay cautious and never slip, because if they do, there will be millions of hands to take people like Li Tianyi to hell. For grass-roots Chinese who feel deeply abused, this perhaps is their only opportunity to address the unjust gap they feel exists between themselves and the rich and powerful, even it's only by oral 'revenge.'

It is clear from reactions to fu'erdai that the issue is larger than the young people involved. As with most labels, fu'erdai simplifies a complex issue, serving as an anchor for negative feelings about societal, economic, and political conditions in today's highly unequal China. Whether the stereotypes associated with the term will change over time depends largely on how China handles the growing gap between the rich and the poor and the role of privilege in society.

This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.