OPINION> Raymond Zhou
Better safe than sorry
By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-10-16 07:42

Lifestyle changes are often spearheaded by trendsetters, such as movie stars and hip-hop idols.

Rarely does a bureaucrat sitting in a non-descript office have the power to influence what people eat, drink, wear, smoke, etc.

But Zhou Jiugeng did it. He could be the single biggest damper on China's conspicuous consumption, at least in the official arena.

Zhou did not start with a fashion agenda. He just happened to appear in a couple of snapshots, which were later posted online. Blown up were a Vacheron Constantin watch that retails at the least for 100,000 yuan ($16,000) and a pack of Nanjing 95 Imperial Cigarettes, which costs about 150 yuan.

People started asking questions: How can a public servant afford such expensive stuff? Where did he get the money?

Eventually, what he wore on his wrist and what he puffed from his mouth became the sparks that kindled the proverbial prairie fire. After an official investigation, Zhou was convicted of accepting 1.07 million yuan and HK $110,000 ($14,000) in bribes. The 49-year-old was given a "lenient sentence" of 11 years in jail, with 1.2 million yuan ($176,000) worth of personal property being confiscated by the Nanjing Intermediate People's Court.

Although the sentence was announced over the weekend, Zhou's impact started late last year shortly after his images were thrust into the spotlight. The price of that brand of cigarettes plummeted by a third. Nothing was said of the watch, but the exposure probably brought a wrong kind of brand awareness for its makers or retailers.

More important, officials were reported to forgo their luxury items when they appeared in public. There is a serious dent in the flaunting of wealth, at least for one significant segment of our society.

But dealers of the Vacheron Constantin watch need not worry. They may lose one part of the target market, but it may well be made up by another part, i.e. business executives. In China, the business community gets its hint from the bureaucrats. You may dispute it: Well, they do not seem to have started the golf craze, have they?

There is one press report that can shed light on the dynamics of power in the area of hobby and recreation. It has popped up at a regular frequency. A corrupt official was uncovered and fell from grace. The lavish gifts he received while in the position of power were auctioned off. Most of the bric-a-bracs showered on him as antiques were found to be fake. Some were just worth the paper the calligraphy was put on.

But a funny thing happened during the auction. Bidders were so fascinated with these gifts they bumped them up in price by a huge margin, though not as high as they would have been if they were genuine, but much higher than for other kinds of counterfeit artifacts. If you pull the bidders aside and ask, you'll be shocked to know that the buying spree is for the next round of gift-giving.

Here is the reasoning: If that deposed official took it as a bribe, he must have believed in its authenticity and loved the "period" details. It's more likely another official will fall for the same thing.

So, Vacheron Constantin makers, don't despair. Now, more gift-givers, your target clients, will know the value of the watch. The only difference: Those who use it will do so for its heirloom value. So, the best way is to reposition it as a watch to keep, not one to show off.

There are two lessons one can learn from this episode. Depending on who you are and where you stand in the intricate interplay of shifting power, you may come out with one of the two epiphanies.

Important people may dress down rather than dress up, inadvertently putting themselves one step higher on the lifestyle ladder. As I see it, there are three stages for a nouveau riche in terms of fashion sensibility.

Stage one: The door is flung open; outside winds gush in; one is dazzled yet incapable of imitating. In the 1980s, Chinese visitors to the US wore suits that were so conspicuous they would stand out in a crowd of hundreds. Tailors should take some of the responsibility. Most of them had forgotten how to make a decent suit even if they were given the right fabric. I remember a movie called Midnight made during the era, but about 1930s Shanghai, the business suits were so crummy the characters were laughed at as country bumpkins.

This is a stage where everything that glitters is gold.

Stage two is more like: Those that glitter may not be gold, but gold has to glitter.

This is the mentality of the 1990s when a few demographic groups got rich first and they couldn't wait to put a glorious glow around themselves. Unfortunately, many are caught in this era and cannot move on. They drink one brand of liquor not because they like it, but because it's the most expensive. They buy one brand of bag not because it meets their needs, but it's the kind the people they look up to carry around with them.

Zhou Jiugeng is dragging us to the third stage, which is not characterized by discriminating taste, but by an outside force to induce self-restraint. I call it: Gold does not need to glitter.

You may still buy that bag, but keep it from public sight. You may still consume the most expensive liquor and cigarettes under heaven, but do it in a private room. In Manhattan and Beverly Hills, you show your importance by getting the most visible table in a crowded restaurant. In China, no VIP would debase himself by sitting with the hoi polloi. They invariably occupy a private room. The most important ones may even clear out the whole restaurant before patronizing it.

Other than that, big enchiladas in China will be more like their American counterparts and give up the notion of impressing those they do not care for. This style change will not eradicate corruption, but it will ease the storm of anger that results from the wealth gap. People will not feel inadequate because they know others are filthy rich. They feel bad and hopeless and cry for class struggle when they see with their own eyes how the rich parade themselves. In that sense, it is a small step toward equality - or its semblance.

Lesson Two: Public figures will learn to refrain from saying things that go against public sentiments.

Zhou Jiugeng was found guilty of taking bribes. But in the court of public opinion, his "crime" was a statement that forbids real estate developers from lowering prices below cost. As an official in charge of the industry he might be able to influence pricing in the property market - and mostly for a short period, but he did not have the ability to enforce it. But to a Chinese netizen, Zhou had committed the ultimate sin, i.e. positioning himself as an enemy of the people.

The online populace is mostly young and not yet propertied. If you say housing prices should not drop or must not drop, imagine how they will feel and react. They would turn you in with incriminating evidence, in this case, photos of the watch and the cigarettes.

The past year has been marked by several similar stories, not all of which are inspiring. While they have heightened awareness of easily bruised "people's feelings", they have also made it impossible to conduct a rational discourse that includes unpopular ideas. If you say the rich also have rights that need protection, you'll be cursed. When a people's representative from the business community filed a motion to that effect, the online response was essentially "How dare you?"

She is a business leader, her job at the Great Hall of the People is to protect business interests. As long as the interests are legal, what's shocking about it?

Populism will rage on. It may not necessarily coerce more bigwigs to work for the people, but it will pressure them to think twice before they speak their heart. What we may get is more polished speechmaking that aims to appease and deflect tension.