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February 15, 2012

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If you've got it, flaunt it

IT may be vulgar, ostentatious and tasteless - it flies in the face of traditional Chinese modesty - but the latest trend for those chasing luxury is posting personal photos with pictures of one's extravagant purchases and their breathtaking price tags. Tan Weiyun reports.

China is showing off, at least those with new money and aspirations want to flaunt it in a materialistic society where people are falling all over each other to acquire and display their wealth and status as conspicuously as possible.

The Internet is perfect for self-aggrandizement through proclaiming one's shopping lists. Internet users, mostly young women and men, post pictures of luxury handbags costing thousands of yuan, piles of ceiling-high RMB notes, drawers filled with gold bullion and jewelry, Swiss timepieces, Maseratis and Lamborghinis, bills from some of Europe's priciest hotels and multi-million-dollar villas.

It should be noted, however, that not everyone posting pictures and bills is well-heeled; some are mad as hell about the gap between the rich and the vast number of not-so-rich and the downright poor. Many are deeply resentful of the state of personal economics in China and want to show how prices have skyrocketed.

In June a scandal involving the "Red Cross Girl" - also known as the Maserati Girl - erupted when 20-year-old Guo Meimei claimed to be a manager of a Red Cross-affiliated company (not true) and on her weibo account posted pictures of herself and a treasure trove of luxuries: expensive handbags, including an Hermes Birkin bag, a Maserati and Lamborghini and a villa. She later said the money came from her mother, who she claimed is a successful stock market investor. She said there was no Red Cross connection.

Efforts to reach Guo and her mother for this story were unsuccessful.

An uproar ensued, there were brief discussions about morality and values in China and how young people should be educated.

"Everyone has vanity to be gratified. Young people without a mature mind tend to show off much more," says Ye Bin, a psychology professor from the East China Normal University. "With the Internet, a wider platform, young people can catch more attentions by showing off.

"Also, today's society is more money-oriented," Ye adds. "In the 1980s, people liked to show off too - they showed off how many good deeds they had done. But today, the moral values are totally different. It seems that money become the only criteria."

The Red Cross made clear it had nothing to do with Guo or any company she mentioned - but thanks to her, charitable giving took a big hit.

Discretion and modesty appear to be alien notions and the concept of understated, quiet elegance apparently has not arrived.

Earlier this year, just before the Chinese Lunar New Year, a Shanghai woman calling herself Mrs Duo Lynn stirred up another hornets' nest and more resentment. She posted on her weibo all the gift vouchers and gift cards for expensive seafood, fruits and vegetables valued at several thousands of yuan that she said her "civil service husband received."

She proudly declared, "A government department is the best place to work and to be a civil servant is such a good job!" Enraged Internet users soon launched what is known as a "human flesh search engine" to turn up details about Mrs Duo Lynn and her husband. They found she had an address in Fengxian District and speculated that her husband might be working in the Customs Department. They also found what they said was his school report when he applied to take the civil service exam.

"Mrs Duo, you are murdering your husband!" "Dear Lynn, are you undercover for anti-corruption cops?" People left thousands of comments.

Mrs Duo quickly backtracked. She said she was unmarried and that the man she referred to was her ex-boyfriend. She deleted everything and said it had all been a fabrication to pass the time because she was bored.

Dinner for 83,000 yuan

Last September a man who identified himself as Jackie_Zheng Wen in Beijing posted on a forum what he said was his dinner bill for more than 83,000 yuan (US$13,172).

The menu included 30 courses, three bottles of 15-year-old premier Moutai distilled liquor, six giant salamanders (an endangered species that's nationally protected), 13 gift packages of "healthy" sugar-free mooncakes filled with shark's fin and spirulina (high-protein algae). He posted the bill for expensive cigarettes selling for more than 100 yuan a pack.

Fury swept the Internet. A flesh-engine search revealed that someone of that name born in 1982 had graduated from a Beijing-based Chinese Communist Party school for young leaders.

Readers commented, "Since you're so rich, why don't you donate to poor kids in remote villages?" "Does this have anything to do with the Party school, young comrade?" "You're eating like tomorrow is the end of the world!"

In response Jackie_Zhen Wen deleted everything. He said he did not graduate from that Party school and had only visited. He said the dinner had no relation with any Party activities.

But as more and more people post bills for luxury goods, first-class airfare to overseas resorts and delux hospital wards for pregnant women, more and more people are posting bills of another kind.

Ordinary office workers are posting grocery bills, including cost of staple foods, bus tickets, utilities, gasoline, even hong bao (red envelopes containing gift money, a must on festival occasions.)

"This bizarre show-off behavior and bills reflect the reality of Chinese society," says certified psychologist Kong Lingxue of the Zhaoliang Consulting Center in Shanghai.

"On one hand, China's economic boom has made a large group of rich people. On the other hand, the rich-poor gap is growing wider," he adds. "The rich are showing off how rich they are, while the poor are showing the pressures of daily life, the rising price of necessities.

"For the idle rich, it's a way to pass time and feel superior. For others, posting daily bills vents negative feelings and invites emotional support on the Internet from others just like them."

As the CPI soars, an increasing number of Chinese are shopping on the Internet where virtually anything can be purchased.

Last month the Alipay, the country's largest online payment system, provided a new e-bill system for users. It maintains detailed, monthly shopping records. It charts personal habits and preferences as well and rankings of purchasers, according to how much money spent online. It does not divulge names or specific purchases.

"Oh, my god! I spent so much in 2011," bank clerk Xu Xiajun said after getting her e-bill last month and posting it on her blog.

She spent 46,093 yuan last year on 132 purchases and ranked in the top 5 percent of Alipay users. "Now I have to skimp and scrape," she said.

Sarcastic readers coined categories for online shopping: frugal (less than 500 yuan), so-so (500-5,000 yuan), extravagant (5,000-10,000 yuan), "cut your hands off" (10,000-30,000 yuan), "shoot yourself 10 times" (more than 50,000 yuan).

Most of the e-bills posted online are between 20,000 and 50,000 yuan, but it's not rare to find some exceeding 500,000, for jewelry, home cinema, even virtual money for online games (yes, one guy spent 500,000 yuan).

Airline tickets, digital products and household appliances account for a big chunk of spending. According to Alipay, most shoppers are between 30 and 40, while the big-ticket shoppers are in their 30s to 40s with an annual average online expenditure of 15,000 yuan per person.

Alipay's first purchase in 2011 was made by a user from Jiangxi Province, who paid 1.65 million yuan. The last one of the year was made from Tianjin Municipality and was only 1 yuan. The biggest order came from Huhhot, capital city of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, for 20 million yuan.

Where'd all that money go?

"A car just slipped away last year," says user "monthly bird" who works in the hospitality industry in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province. He spent 390,000 yuan, enough to buy a mid-size car. He posted his bills on weibo.

"I didn't notice until I got the bill, which really shocked me," he says. Most money was spent on items like baby items, including imported milk powder, and baby carriage, cosmetics for his wife, electronic products and DSLR camera.

Another online buyer "Yiyi" from Shanghai splurged 735,000 yuan on more than 420 purchases. "I could buy a small flat in Shanghai with this amount of money," the employee of an international school writes on her weibo, tagged with a gloomy face.

Experts on Internet crime warn that people be very cautious in posting bills that contain personal details.


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