Three decades of economic liberalisation have radically changed the face of China. With the number of Chinese billionaires increasing rapidly (it now has almost as many as the US and is closing in on the top spot), the communist ideals of the past seem to have faded beyond recognition.
“You can never have enough money. Money helps me fulfill my dreams”, says Li Chao, for whom expensive hobbies like motor racing are no longer out of reach. He thinks nothing of splashing out hundreds of thousands of dollars on glamorous supercars and is unapologetic about his growing wealth. After all, he says, he has earned it.
Li represents a new generation of pioneering ‘red capitalists’, many of them the children of Communist Party officials. Flamboyant, accustomed to success and able to spend more money in one luxury evening in Shanghai or Beijing than others can earn in a year, they are fast becoming the embodiment of the modern Chinese dream. Others, like the real estate developer Wang Dafu, were born into poverty, but have been equally able to build vast fortunes in a country with growth rates that other nations can only dream of.
“When I started working I sometimes couldn’t afford a beer and a bowl of noodles,” he says. Now, with his personal wealth estimated at two-thirds of a billion dollars, he could spend the equivalent of 10,000 bowls of noodles on the interior design of his yacht and barely dent his bank account.
It is not surprising that with more and more people splashing the cash, the Chinese auto market is now the largest in the world, its luxury goods market is huge and its art market is booming. This is life – albeit for a privileged minority – in the new China and it is one focused on what many observers now see as an increasingly hollow slogan: “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”.
Yet those who run the country clearly do not appreciate the irony. Take the incomes of the members of the People’s Congress, the official parliament, which meets once a year. The 70 richest members collectively have assets worth over $85bn. This compares favourably to the relatively meagre $5.5bn available to the 70 richest members of Congress in Washington DC.
Yet Wu Renbao, the former party boss of Huaxi, sees no contradiction. “Whatever the ideology – the main thing is that we become rich together,” he says. In other words, everyone has an equal opportunity to benefit; all they have to do is work hard.
But not everyone is happy. Economist Zhang Hongliang is an unreconstructed leftist, who warns that China’s leadership may come to rue its love affair with profit.
“Directors of companies shouldn’t be party secretaries. It should be the proletariat providing the secretaries and the directors representing the capitalists. When a person takes on those two roles, one thing is clear: the Communist Party is nothing but a capitalist party through and through,” Zhang says.
This revealing film from Jörg Winter and ORF looks at some of the possible consequences of China’s growing love affair with money and wonders what has happened to the Marxist principles that the nation once paid homage to.