Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China's New Rich

Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China's New Rich

by John Osburg


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Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China's New Rich by John Osburg

Who exactly are China's new rich? This pioneering investigation introduces readers to the private lives—and the nightlives—of the powerful entrepreneurs and managers redefining success and status in the city of Chengdu. Over the course of more than three years, anthropologist John Osburg accompanied, and in some instances assisted, wealthy Chinese businessmen as they courted clients, partners, and government officials.

Drawing on his immersive experiences, Osburg invites readers to join him as he journeys through the new, highly gendered entertainment sites for Chinese businessmen, including karaoke clubs, saunas, and massage parlors—places specifically designed to cater to the desires and enjoyment of elite men. Within these spaces, a masculinization of business is taking place. Osburg details the complex code of behavior that governs businessmen as they go about banqueting, drinking, gambling, bribing, exchanging gifts, and obtaining sexual services.

These intricate social networks play a key role in generating business, performing social status, and reconfiguring gender roles. But many entrepreneurs feel trapped by their obligations and moral compromises in this evolving environment. Ultimately, Osburg examines their deep ambivalence about China's future and their own complicity in the major issues of post-Mao Chinese society—corruption, inequality, materialism, and loss of trust.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804783538
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 04/03/2013
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

John Osburg is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Rochester.

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Copyright © 2013Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-8353-8




In 1997, I arrived in Guangzhou, the booming capital city of Guangdong province, to begin teaching English at a provincial education college. Like many casual observers of China, I was captivated by the irony of a wealthy, entrepreneurial class in an ostensibly socialist country and the social tensions and contradictions brought by China's market reforms. My students were primarily high school English teachers in their twenties from small towns in rural Guangdong. They were attending two years of professional training in Guangzhou before being sent back to their schools. Over late-night snacks and beers in outdoor sidewalk restaurants, they talked about their hopes for the future and anxieties about the present. I quickly learned that the broader social and economic transformations of the previous two decades, while improving their standard of living, had overturned many of their certainties about Chinese society and their place within it. They felt both threatened by and drawn to the expanding world of business, angry about its injustices but seduced by its promises of excitement, status, and riches.

While the new rich were a common topic of discussion, many of the conversations we had about this group quickly evolved into discussions of marriage, romance, and sexual morality. In many ways, among my students it seemed that anxiety about growing social inequality in China manifested in moral discussions about men and women.

My male students frequently complained that in their hometowns uneducated entrepreneurs and nouveau-riche peasants were taking "their women." They claimed that just a few years earlier the level of education and the lifestyle afforded by their occupations had given them moderate status in their rural home communities, enough status at least to attract another hometown teacher as a wife. Now they felt that the relatively paltry material benefits of their jobs—low incomes and dependence on their schools for cramped, dilapidated housing—ranked them lower in the marriage market than uneducated but wealthy entrepreneurs who often had private cars and personal residences bought in the commercial housing market. Their female classmates, they complained, had it easy. Because they were educated (but not overeducated), poorly paid (relative to a potential husband), and employed in jobs considered morally appropriate for their gender, these women had no trouble finding a suitable (and wealthy) spouse.

For these male students, an increasingly normative masculinity based on taking entrepreneurial risks and achieving success in the market economy had very real consequences for their life decisions. As a result of their difficulty getting married, many were looking for ways to leave their schools. However, because their work units (danwei) had funded their two-year stints at the education college, the only way out of their teaching commitments back home was for them to reimburse their schools for all the money spent on their behalf. Ironically, this led quite a few of them to skip classes in search of business and money-making opportunities in Guangzhou. In fact, some had viewed attending the college in Guangzhou from the start as little more than a means of getting to the city to find better employment, a better quality of life, and, they hoped, a wife along the way.

They experienced their dependence on the state sector as a form of emasculation. Their outdated sense of entitlement, derived from their status as nonlaboring "intellectuals" (zhishifenzi), informed their indignation over "their women" marrying nouveau-riche fish farmers and auto parts dealers who would have been both morally and politically suspect just a decade earlier. This example points to the gendered logic and consequences of stratification in contemporary China. The emergence of a new, class-inflected masculinity, revealed in this case in the domain of marriage, reoriented the ambitions of these teachers and altered their sense of themselves as producers, consumers, and men. And for the female teachers it helped reinforce a reemerging "traditional" femininity—that women should cultivate their feminine virtues and physical attractiveness along with the goal of marrying well. As many popular allegories now proclaim, overachievement in education and business would only make finding a husband more difficult.

There was a saying often repeated to me in these conversations: "As soon as a man gets rich, he goes bad; as soon as a woman goes bad, she becomes rich" (nanren yi youqian jiu huaile; nüren yihuaile jiu youqian). This statement suggests that to many of my students both the lure of wealth and the experience of prosperity affect men and women differently. They understood wealth not only to reveal basic differences between men and women, but to have a transformative effect on their motives, characters, and relationships as well. In short, the social stratification brought by China's economic reforms has produced new ideologies and relations of gender, and these are in turn affecting the course of social and economic change in China (Gal and Kligman 2000).

This book examines the rise of elite networks composed of nouveau-riche entrepreneurs, state enterprise managers, and government officials. These powerful new groups have exerted increasing dominance over many aspects of Chinese commerce and politics during the reform era, which began in the late 1970s. The book considers these networks, which are composed mostly of men, as gendered social formations governed by an ethics of brotherhood, loyalty, and patronage. Using ethnographic data gathered from interviews, experiences as the host of a Chinese television show, and countless evenings accompanying businessmen entertaining their clients, partners, and state officials, I analyze the ways in which relationships are formed between elite men through shared experiences of leisure—banqueting, drinking, gambling, and cavorting with female hostesses—and the importance of these relationships in organizing business ventures, orienting personal morality, and performing social status.

This "masculinization" of the sphere of private business and deal-making in China has generated challenges for women entrepreneurs, who are often accused of using their sexuality to get ahead, and has given rise to a new class of young women who live off the patronage of China's new-rich businessmen and corrupt state officials. These young women are central to mediating relationships and mirroring status among elite men and are integral to the emergence of a growing, semi-legitimate "beauty economy" (meinü jingji) in urban China, which seeks to exploit the youth and attractiveness of young women for commercial gain.

I also examine the rise of new forms of leisure and consumption, new patterns of marriage and sexuality, and the proliferation of official corruption in China, all as aspects of shifting templates of interpersonal morality. I contend that these phenomena are key to understanding new forms of economic inequality and gender discrimination in contemporary China, as well as many aspects of China's current political configuration.

China's Market Reforms and the Rise of Entrepreneurs

After the death of Mao in 1976 and after a brief Maoist interim period led by Hua Guofeng, the Communist Party, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, began to reassess many of the tenets of Maoist economics such as collectivization and the centralized allocation of resources. In the domain of ideology, Deng proclaimed that the fundamental contradiction in Chinese society was no longer between classes, but between "the backward and the advanced forces of production," and therefore called for the unleashing of the

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Table of Contents


List of Figures....................     vii     

Acknowledgments....................     ix     

1. Introduction....................     1     

2. "Entertaining Is My Job": Masculinity, Sexuality, and Alliances Among Chengdu's Entrepreneurs...........     37     

3. "Relationships Are the Law": Elite Networks and Corruption in Contemporary China....................     76     

4. From Fruit Plates to License Plates: Consumption, Status, and Recognition Among Chengdu's Elite.........     113     

5. Women Entrepreneurs and the "Beauty Economy": Sexuality, Morality, and Wealth....................     143     

6. Conclusion: Elite Networks and Public Morality....................     183     

Notes....................     193     

Glossary....................     211     

Bibliography....................     215     

Index....................     227     

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