Op-Ed Contributors

Why the nouveau riche in China stink

By William Daniel Garst (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-04-30 07:52
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American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that the "rich are different from you and me They possess and enjoy early and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard and cynical where we are trusting". He was talking about wealthy Americans, especially the nouveau riche, of the 1920s, known in the history books as the "Roaring Twenties". But his words ring true for the rich, particularly their children, in today's China, too.

China's rapid economic growth, coupled with Deng Xiaoping's declaration, "To get rich is glorious", has spawned many millionaires and even billionaires. These people have now gained wide acceptance and are not afraid to flaunt their wealth.

Wang Zhongjun is one of them. The producer of hit films such as The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) reportedly drives a silver Mercedes and red Ferrari, owns a 22,000-square-foot mansion in northern Beijing with a $30-million art collection, and has a stable of 60 horses from Ireland and Kentucky.

Examples of such conspicuous consumption and arrogance are many. Late last year, a young girl of a wealthy Chongqing family literally spent millions to welcome home her pet dog. More recently, some rich young boys held car drag races in Nanjing, disturbing residents no end.

A large number of the country's wealthy young men are not perfect gentlemen, but that does not stop many young women from dreaming of marrying them. A recent survey showed that 60 percent of girl students in colleges wanted to marry a fu'erdai or second-generation wealthy youth. Many a media outlet, too, seem to be in awe of the wealthy, and the recent film, Go Lala Go, is an example of that.

My country, the US, has a long history of worshipping wealth. Not surprisingly, the offspring of rich American families often believe that normal rules of human behavior don't apply to them. The peccadilloes of third-generation Kennedy family children come readily to mind, as do the more recent outrageous acts of Neil Bush.

But old wealthy American families usually set high goals for their children. Parents may help their sons and daughters realize these goals, but they expect them to study and work hard to achieve success. Thus rather than filling a top slot in one of the family's companies, former US president George H. W. Bush went into the oil business in Texas after graduating from Yale. Though he got help from his parents, there is no denying that he demonstrated considerable business ability.

That sadly is not the case with the children of China's nouveau riche. In China, relationships matter more than in the West, so these kids can always count on having the skids greased by their folks' guanxi. And while many single Chinese children suffer from the "little emperor" syndrome, the problem is more acute among wealthy kids. Their parents have the money to mollycoddle them and fulfill even their most outlandish wishes - like spending millions to welcome home a pet dog!

I have vivid memories of one "little empress" from the year I taught English at Beijing Second Foreign Languages University. I was told that her father was vice-president of some big company. That young lady had no need to study hard, and thus spent my classes reading South Korean and Japanese fashion magazines.

Fortunately, China need not depend on the children of wealthy families for its future leaders in business, government and the arts. In contrast to less affluent American families, their counterparts still value education highly and push their children to succeed in studies.

My two best students at the foreign languages university came from modest backgrounds. One was a girl from Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi province, whose parents owned a small hardware store. The other was a farmer's daughter from Shandong province. Both studied incredibly hard, harder than 99 percent of the students in American universities. The Xi'an girl is now doing her PhD in economics from Peking University, while the Shandong girl is studying for a master's degree in translation at China's best foreign language university - Beijing Foreign Studies University.

I am proud of these exceptional young women and hope China can ensure that other less affluent children get similar opportunities. But access to higher education is now being threatened by rapidly increasing high school and university tuition fees. In fact, university tuition fees have seen a quantum jump in recent years. If this problem is not addressed, the indolence of China's wealthy youth will create problems that are far bigger than newspaper headlines on rich children running wild.

The author is an American corporate trainer in China.

(China Daily 04/30/2010 page9)