He began by exploring the sauna built in the luxurious bathroom of the hotel’s Presidential Suite. Then the vlogger moved into the dining room, where a chef waited and a shinning steak waited. The next morning, he woke up to a lobster breakfast, and squatted down in bed.
“Today’s bill: 108,876 kwai,” or more than $17,000, he said after checking out his hotel in Chengdu, China, waving his receipt in front of the camera. “We’ve grown away from the equivalent of several iPhones,” he said with a laugh.
The video was definitely cliched. Definitely proud. Now, it’s also a violation of Chinese internet rules.
Chinese authorities have declared war on content seen as an “exorbitant fortune”, amid sweeping calls from the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, to combat inequality. As Mr. Shi is setting himself up for a third term, he has portrayed himself as the man of the people, campaigning against entrenched interests.
Financial regulators have cracked down on the country’s tech giants, extracting pledges of loyalty and massive donations. Senior businessmen were arrested on corruption charges. And online, authorities have ordered social media platforms to delete popular videos that show the divide between the haves and the have-nots.
The hotel blogger has amassed over 28 million followers on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, by posting videos where he toured expensive hotels and sampled delicacies. But after it was identified by the state media, he deleted these videos. His recent posts show that he’s trying to snack in stores. (He did not respond to requests for comment.)
“We will strengthen our management and increase our campaign strength, to make Internet platforms feel that there is a sword above their heads,” Zhang Yongjun, a senior official with China’s cyberspace administration, said at a press conference this year.
There is no clear definition of what constitutes ostentation or wealth. While officials set some specific examples, such as displaying receipts or over-ordering food, they largely set a sort of “I know it when I see it” rule.
“The criterion is the effect of the content,” said Mr. Zhang. “Can the spread of this content inspire people to be healthy, ambitious and work harder for a beautiful life? Or does it satisfy people’s cliched desires?”
Video platform Douyin said this year that it shut down about 4,000 accounts in two months, including those that posted videos of people “scattering the renminbi.” Xiaohongshu, a lifestyle app similar to Instagram, announced last month that it had tagged nearly 9,000 posts that boasted of wealth from May to October.
Inequality in China is wide. One percent of Chinese own 31 percent of the country’s wealth, according to the Credit Suisse Research Institute. The coronavirus pandemic has also exposed inequalities, with the rich returning to luxury spending while other Chinese have continued to struggle.
If left unaddressed, the imbalance could pose a threat to the near-total control of the authorities, which depend on a promise of economic comfort. Exorbitant urban housing prices and accelerating competition for white-collar jobs have left many young people feeling the “China Dream” out of reach. Even Mr. Xi described the gap between the rich and the poor as a “key political issue” affecting the party’s legitimacy.
But the campaign against flaunting wealth, with its focus on curbing the trappings of wealth — not wealth itself — highlights a broader question about how far Mr. Xi’s rhetoric will go. Despite his overwhelming power, Mr. Xi has yet to adopt tactics that may be unpopular with the middle class or elites, many of whom have party connections. Policies such as property and inheritance taxes have been on hold for a long time, and business rights remain weak.
Zhang Jun, an assistant professor at City University of Hong Kong who studies Chinese class politics, said of the internet’s crackdown.
Exhilarating physical performances have always found eager audiences online, with the Chinese internet no exception. In a viral trend in 2018, Chinese users posted pictures of themselves scattered on the floor surrounded by expensive items. An entire industry exists to help users look richer than they really are.
Last summer, the authorities started paying attention. In July 2020, the Department of Cyberspace announced a plan to “comprehensively clean up information that promotes bad values such as comparison or ostentation of wealth, extravagant entertainment, etc.”
The campaign was prompted by intense government media coverage, with China’s state news agency Xinhua saying the massive wealth had “destroyed the social atmosphere”. In recent weeks, the app has received a new round of attention with the Xiaohongshu app inviting users to create videos denouncing the wealth that flaunts and promotes them to other viewers.
Among those invited was Yi Yang, the owner of an inn in Dujiangyan, a small city in Sichuan Province. Last month, Ms. Yi, 35, shared a video, set to soft piano music, of her gardening husband and packs tons of tons as she described how they made their furniture and grew their vegetables themselves. She compared her lifestyle to people bragging online about buying their first sports car or paying entirely for sprawling villas.
“We have dreams, we have flowers, we have freedom,” she said. “This is a real fortune.”
In an interview, Ms. Yi said she is concerned that young people who watch flashy videos may develop unrealistic expectations. When they failed to achieve similar material wealth, she said, “they would have doubts about society and about themselves.”
Others said concerns about flaunting wealth were exaggerated. On the social media platform Weibo, some users said that the videos either satisfy their curiosity or were just entertaining.
However, despite the government’s strong rhetoric, it is unclear how the anti-wealth campaign is being implemented, and how strict this campaign is.
Douyin and Kuaishou were each fined about $31,000 in October for allowing an advertisement that authorities said promoted “excessive consumption”.
Xiaohongshu announced last month that it had improved its algorithm to determine ostentatious wealth but did not give details. The company did not respond to requests for comment.
But the apps are still awash with status symbols. Searching for luxury brands in Xiaohongshu still returns countless results. One blog featured 121 pairs of designer shoes. Others compared the merits of Fendi, Burberry and Louis Vuitton scarves.
Compared to the total number of posts on these sites, the number flagged is “basically nothing,” Professor Zhang noted.
She added that even if all these posts were to disappear, not much would change in terms of the actual distribution of wealth. “We all know, just because people don’t show pictures of their money, cars, handbags, and jewelry, it doesn’t mean they don’t have money.” But for some critics of ostentation, targeting ostentation, rather than wealth, may be the goal.
Jacy Chen, 38, who was invited by Xiaohongshu to make a video against flaunting wealth, said she had no problem with celebrities doing ads for fashion houses, or her rich friends posting about glamorous vacations or wearing expensive watches. Ms. Chen, a university lecturer in Beijing who often blogs about career advice, said they know how to be brilliant.
Her main complaint was from skeptics – people who took pictures with bags or cars they didn’t actually own.
She said, “Actually, in my opinion, for some people they have money and others don’t – that’s very normal.”