Not Worth Your Net Worth
Sitting opposite yet another of the innumerable Chinese businessmen I interview on a weekly basis as he puffed on a pipe stuffed with what smelled like the most expensive organic Virginia available, I was gifted an insight into China’s new elite.
In this gentleman’s words (let’s call him Mr. Wang), in the West you have to be “one of the aristocracy” to get into venues like his (he runs a private members’ club). In China, according to Mr. Wang, all you need is money. Flash the cash, and the staff will fall over themselves to get you what you want—be it a twelve-foot high character for longevity embroidered in gold thread, or an antique Qing-dynasty four-post bed plundered from a collapsing courtyard. Money is your passport.
This may seem a laudable system—after all, isn’t this the core tenet of capitalism? The right person is the richest person—background, breeding and personal taste are immaterial. Mr. Wang spoke with transparent pride about the “farmers” and “peasants” who now wielded immense economic clout in China’s elite circles. To such figures, only the material is material.
In the China of yesteryear, value was calculated very differently—the wealthiest merchants were excluded from elite circles (being in a tier just above farm labourers and way below university students); the emperor and bureaucracy chose instead to surround themselves with “men of talent”—an autocratic meritocracy with no parallel elsewhere in history. Value was ascribed to such people who could compose poetry off the cuff, paint a picture as quickly as ink and brush could be fetched, or recite passages verbatim from the Chinese Classics. This system was equally biased, just in favour of those with good memories, toadying skills or a particular artistic flair hothoused from infancy. And like today, guanxi helps.
Has anything improved under “socialism with Chinese characteristics”? A cash injection doesn’t seem to have remedied China’s age-old pandemic of corruption, and in terms of a mandate to misbehave, at least the bung-loving backdoor mandarins of the Imperial court had qualifications to wave in your face. There is no similar mandate required of commerce—if it makes money, you’re in, just don’t get caught giving babies kidney stones or constructing matchwood schools in an earthquake zone (at least, not more than once). The Chinese have long been masters of the calculated risks of plagiarism. In this way, they are similar to the great American opportunist—do what you like, just don’t get caught. However, this age-old pastime is now making inroads into a market economy which will not only determine the fate of 1.3 billion people, but the fate of global capitalism. If the Chinese-style calculated risk becomes the de facto business practice globally (as it has been under the worst excesses of Neoliberal economics), with power turned over completely to the wealthy, unelected 1%, things could get much, much worse for most.
Those with a little learning we may find insufferable, however for the most part they lack the means to wreck our lives. Not so the super-rich, who can often steal, pollute and maim with impunity. Money allows the truly ignorant and dunderheaded to shape the world at will, whereas booksmarts does not—not one of an impoverished Oscar Wilde’s bon mots saved him from conviction for indecency, a conviction easily overturned in Victorian London when the accused was a person of means. When a right to rule is afforded only to the wealthy, we become completely at their mercy. Who doesn’t bemoan our profit-driven society, in which “X-Factor” contestants outsell artists devoting their life’s work to music, or in which movies are written to sell rather than entertain? Profit-driven anything rarely offers much to the soul—least of all profit-driven politics. Let’s hope that China’s corridors of power remain out-of-bounds to the non-Party schooled, and in the hands of the degree-holding soldiers and engineers of the current administration. When the world’s largest military is turned over to the person who most wants to buy it, then we’re in trouble.