Ten days with Fuerdai and what I have come to realise
Rich Chinese Millennials Navigating Through the Dark Abyss of Loneliness and Comparison
Originally published in Issue 2 at CUriosity in Spring 2019.
Disclaimer: the views expressed here are not reflective of anyone other than me—whose judgments are always subject to change and revision in the wake of constant bombardment of thoughts and constructive criticism. Solely for team Potter, Weasley or Granger. Do not read if you are from the Malfoy family.
The world is full of wonder in many senses. As a lifelong Harry Potter fan I have long been accustomed to believing truth will prevail in the fullness of time with the collaboration of people with merits, beliefs, and trust, even with no money nor any family background. However, I was struck lately with a mind-blowing experience having spent days with a group of snobbish pure bloods. I never thought my life would take me to that very instant I was living in.
“I Am Someone’s Son”
A while ago I returned from a ten-day long trip from Beijing for a program I had applied, which described itself as one that brings together talented youths from across the strait, Hong Kong, Macau, and overseas Chinese communities for an intensive training on Chinese foreign affairs to better prepare this group of young talents to do business along the Belt and Road. There, 40 of us, mostly aged under 40, attended six hours of class every day. That also means that we had to find our ways to make friends or to participate “meaningfully” in the course such that we left no regrets behind—well, regrets differ from one to another. I was clear what my aims were—learning about the Chinese angles of foreign affairs. In the meantime, I was expecting friends and nice food to be positive externalities of the program (quite utilitarian I know).
It turns out that I was not the only utilitarian person there. As a matter of fact, I was almost the most idealistic person there. Other than me, the participants were all from very wealthy backgrounds and went there just to make friends (with benefits) and get investments. The first questions they asked were: “Who is your dad? What do you do?” After a series of interrogation, they determined your “value”, which corresponds to the attention you get from them throughout the course.
Let me recount some examples for you to get a better idea of how these people behaved. They asked about each other’s families, not about that person, but his family; they talked about how many horses their families owned, and put everyone into horse classes and would even say it out (one guy literally said “I am a first-class horse, and you are second-class…”); they skipped classes, or came to class late with a hangover, saying they had “important” things to do during the night. They competed to pay the bill while bragging and parading their “generosity” to their peers. They went the extra mile to impress girls with cakes and flowers while lying about who paid for the cakes. They boasted about their companies, like how many billions they made in the first quarter, but when other people asked them for their company profiles for potential investment purposes, they said “sorry man I just sold my company a month ago”; they openly talked about the number of girls they had sex with, with one guy even saying that he had once had a girlfriend from the British Royal family, just so that this girl could protect him (I honestly can’t figure out why a grown-up man like him would need any protection. I don’t know what protection he was referring to. I didn’t want to know). They did not care about their attendance and neither did the organiser. Networking seemed to be the key goal of everyone.
These people competed to outshine one another. They are all ultra-rich second-generation kids from China, or what we call, in Chinese, Fuerdai. They don’t want to be known for themselves. They feel good being defined as someone’s son. I do not want to generalise, but at least most people I met there were like that.
The Phenomenon of Fuerdai
Fuerdai (富二代) refers to the second generation of the country’s wealthy class, who made their fortune in the wake of the market liberalisation in post-reform China in 1978. They may be children of the nouveau riche (“tuhao” 土豪), but may also be blue blood whose families have been wealthy aristocrats for generations. These people may already be in their 30s or 40s but still behave like kids. Ostentatiously flaunting their wealth from time to time, fuerdai are often pictured in the media as being spendthrifts shopping for Ferrari, Porsche and Birkin bags. They went to Ivy League universities, speak native English, and have the perfect CVs. While a handful of them pursue their dreams, many follow the traditional obstacle-free path and went into their family businesses.
For many, fuerdai is a notorious label to wear publicly because it dismisses their talents and own ideas. But some other people just couldn’t care less about being identified as fuerdai; rather, they feel proud to be part of the second-generation group (which they call 2-G Group) since they no longer need to explain to every single person they meet how rich they are—being part of 2-G, similar to owning a horse, is already an indication of wealth in itself.
Fuerdai symbolise China’s Great Gatsby era and its mad dash for economic growth following stagnation brought by the Cultural Revolution. But as I believe many would agree, money is no guarantee for any particular merit or competence. Instead, the rise of fuerdai brings about and is itself a manifestation of social and moral problems associated with modern Chinese society. The root cause of these problems is income inequality.
Economic growth alone does not provide a full picture of a country’s development. Income inequality in China is caused by many factors—historical, social and political. Historically, after year 1978, some families took off and climbed the social ladder because they had the idea, resources, and luck. There is no problem with it at all. However, the policies that the government introduced then were technically encouraging an unequal distribution of resources, which have made these families become richer and richer while the rest become poorer and poorer. Deng Xiaoping’s dicta of “let some people get rich first” and prioritisation to develop the East, on the one hand, have both been proven successful as reflected by China’s excellent economic performance following its Opening-Up, but on the other hand, have made fatal mistakes in terms of increasing overall inequality, rural-urban inequality, and inland-coastal inequality. A research looking into economic situation of eight provinces in China has shown that between 1989 and 2004, income in coastal provinces has tripled whilst that of the inland has only doubled. Socially, China’s Hukou system (戶口) which originally intended to regulate population distribution has institutionalised inequality and consolidated PRC administrative control over the population. It has contributed to limited rural-urban migration and aggravated inland-coastal inequality. Politically, widespread corruption after 1978 has led to public outrage and consequently resulted in the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989. The military crackdown not only put off the little spark for democratisation of China, but also amplified the magnitude of corruption in China for decades, tremendously increasing inequality by affecting income and welfare distribution. Increased inequality in turn promotes corruption between political elites and poorer people who have no choice but to bribe the officials.
With all contexts determining the nature of China’s economic development—abrupt and uneven— certain groups of people with vested interest in the growth of the economy had benefited from leadership transitions and social transformations. They became rich and had the resources to invest, start business, or cooperate with state enterprises, who, after their passings, left their children and grandchildren money, and on top of that, network. That is how Fuerdai were born.
“I Can Do More Than Just Inherit Money”
Spending some days with Fuerdai has made me rethink everything I thought I knew about life. Can we really eliminate inequality? Is it precisely inequality that makes some groups better off so they strive hard to maintain that gap? How do the children view their parents’ money?
While the Fuerdai I met in this trip has dragged me to the dark side of money, I also have friends who are rich but still humble and grateful for everything they have. One girl from Hong Kong I met, whose dad is a high-ranking politician in China, said to me she deeply felt her inadequacy and always wanted to do better. She does not live with her family and makes money from working in the entertainment industry. She knows how to use the money to invest in herself. Although from time to time she still needs financial support from her parents, she knows life is not just about enjoyment and spending money. Although she has yet gained financial independence from her parents, she has shown me she can do more than inherit money.
From Heaven to Earth
On my way back to Hong Kong, I could not help thinking about what I had seen the past two weeks. Did I enjoy a bit of the programme? No. Did I make any friends at all? Yes. The girl I mentioned whose dad is a Chinese politician and I became good friends, partly because we shared a room, and more importantly because we both understand showing off is a sign of insecurity and underachievement.
The emergence of these notoriously rich is obviously not a local issue. Rather, it happens almost everywhere in the developed world. It should deserve more attention in contexts outside of China. For example, in South Korea, heirs and heiresses of chaebols (family-owned business conglomerates) are treated like princes and princesses, while normal South Korean people worked like dogs. Relative poverty needs to be addressed to mitigate the hard feeling poor people have as they see and interact with the rich. I believe, with humbleness, Fuerdai might escape the curse going from clogs to clogs in three generations; with arrogance and ignorance, they will only fall from heaven to earth and end up in misery.