27th May 2024 – (Beijing) Chinese authorities have recently launched a sweeping crackdown on ostentatious displays of wealth online. From Weibo to Douyin, major platforms are scrambling to scrub their sites of content deemed to be “showing off wealth and worshipping money” – a trend that the government sees as antithetical to its vision of a “civilised, healthy and harmonious” online environment.

The crackdown, orchestrated by the powerful Cyberspace Administration of China, has already claimed some high-profile casualties. Many Chinese Influencers, known for flaunting their lavish lifestyles and eye-popping collections of luxury goods, have seen their accounts abruptly shuttered. In a matter of days, thousands of posts showcasing everything from Hermès handbags to Lamborghinis have vanished from the Chinese internet.

For outside observers, this heavy-handed intervention might seem puzzling. After all, aspirational content and conspicuous consumption are staples of social media around the world. From the Kardashians to the “Rich Kids of Instagram”, there’s no shortage of influencers making a living by showcasing their privileged lives. So why is China taking such a hard line?

The answer lies in the unique political and social context of modern China. Under President Xi Jinping, the country has embarked on a campaign to promote “common prosperity” – a vision of a more equitable society where extreme wealth is reined in and the fruits of economic growth are more evenly distributed. In this context, the garish excesses of the “wealth-flaunting” influencers are seen not just as tasteless, but as a threat to social harmony.

There’s also a deeper psychological dimension at play. In a society where the gap between rich and poor is widening at an alarming rate, the constant barrage of images showcasing unattainable luxury can fuel intense feelings of relative deprivation and resentment. For the average Chinese citizen, scraping by on a modest salary, watching a 20-something flaunt their collection of Birkin bags and Patek Philippe watches is a bitter pill to swallow.

The government’s concern is that this simmering discontent if left unchecked, could boil over into social unrest. In a country haunted by memories of the Cultural Revolution, when class warfare tore society apart, the spectre of a populist backlash against the wealthy is taken very seriously indeed.

However, while the motivations behind the crackdown may be understandable, its effectiveness is another matter entirely. The harsh reality is that no amount of censorship can paper over the gaping inequalities that have become a defining feature of contemporary China. Banning a few influencers might make for good optics, but it does nothing to address the structural factors – from a regressive tax system to rampant cronyism – that have concentrated wealth in the hands of a tiny elite.

If anything, driving these displays of wealth underground could make the problem worse. In the absence of the glossy veneer of social media, the lives of the super-rich will only seem more distant and more enviable to the have-nots. The yearning for a taste of the high life, repressed but not extinguished, could find outlets in even more socially destructive ways.

There’s also the risk that this crackdown, like so many before it, will devolve into a farcical game of cat-and-mouse, with influencers devising ever more creative ways to flaunt their affluence without running afoul of the censors. Already, savvy posters are finding workarounds, using coded language and subtle visual cues to signal their wealth to those in the know. A photo of a nondescript tea cup, posted by the right influencer, can set off a frenzy of speculation about which ultra-exclusive restaurant it came from.

In the end, China’s war on online ostentation is likely to be a futile one. As long as there are haves and have-nots, there will be those who feel compelled to flaunt their status, and those who resent them for it. The best the government can hope for is to manage these tensions, not eliminate them entirely.

But there is a lesson here for influencers, in China and beyond. In an age of rising inequality and populist anger, conspicuous displays of wealth are not just in bad taste – they’re downright dangerous. Those who build their personal brands on the back of their lavish lifestyles should think carefully about the social and political forces they’re playing with. In the end, the price of flaunting could be far higher than any luxury good.