Now decades old, China’s economic boom has brought a better life to hundreds of millions. But it has also created new problems, such as pollution and inequality. And, for the super-rich, a moral conundrum: how, wealthy parents wonder, can they raise children who do not behave like arrogant brats?
China now has an estimated 1.09m people with personal wealth of at least 10m yuan ($1.6m), and 67,000 “super-rich” ones with assets above 100m yuan, including 213 dollar billionaires. Their children, the “second-generation rich”, or fuerdai, are the object of rapt attention in national media and a mixture of envy and revulsion among ordinary folk.
They can be seen driving outrageously posh cars which, thanks to stiff import duties, can cost $1m or more. Some of them post ostentatious pictures and vulgar rants about their exploits on social media. Wang Sicong, the son of one of China’s richest tycoons, recently aroused a storm of criticism for saying that his main criterion when selecting a girlfriend was that she must be “buxom”. He also posted snaps of his Alaskan husky wearing two gold Apple Watches, worth tens of thousands of dollars—useful, no doubt, if the dog ever needs to surf the internet.
In June Xi Jinping, China’s president, told a government meeting that China’s young rich must curb their hedonistic ways. They should be guided, he said, “to think about where their wealth comes from” and be patriotic, law-abiding and hard-working. A week after his remarks were made public, state media reported on a training session in the prosperous coastal province of Fujian for 70 offspring of billionaires, where they were taught “traditional Chinese culture, social responsibility and business knowledge”—and fined 1,000 yuan if they turned up late.
According to some fuerdai, all this will be an uphill battle. Wang Daqi, a 30-year-old from a monied family, profiled several of his peers in “Burden of Wealth”, a book published in May. It sought to paint a more nuanced portrait of the lives the fuerdai lead, but he acknowledges that ostentation is the only value many of them know. “It’s pretty pathetic, actually,” he says. Among those who do work, he adds, most choose to invest their family wealth in other businesses. “To build a new business of your own takes a lot of work, but if you just seed startups you don’t have to do the hard work or carry too much responsibility.”
Another member of the fuerdai, a 26-year-old Beijing native whose father is a self-made investment banker, says some of his friends are from politically well-connected families and probably owe some of their wealth to corrupt dealings. Others have honest family fortunes built from scratch, and many, he reckons, fall somewhere in between. “We don’t talk too much among ourselves about where the money comes from,” he says. “We all understand it can be very sensitive.”
China’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign, he thinks, is doing more than any training programme to get rich kids to tone things down—at least in public. They still party hard and buy new cars every six months. “But now when they go out, they just take the BMW 7 Series instead of the Aston Martin.”