Tea Leaf Nation

Meet China's Beverly Hillbillies

The absurdity of the Middle Kingdom's Bentley-driving, blinged-out nouveau riche.

They have been mentioned more than 56 million times on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter. Everyone wants to be their friend, but no one likes them. They seem to be everywhere, throwing around their newly minted renminbi and well-used UnionPay debit cards; yet they are elusive and shun the media. Their love for bling has become the backbone of the global luxury goods industry, yet they are also the subject of disdain, the butt of jokes, the punching bag for that which is offensive to good taste.

They are the tuhao -- tu means dirt or uncouth; hao means splendor -- and they are the Beverly Hillbillies of China. Or something like that: A crowdsourced translation call on China's social media yielded "new money," "slumdog millionaire," the "riChinese" and "billionbilly." When English falls short, French is on hand to help: Tuhao have the artistic sensibilities of the arriviste, the social grace of the parvenu, and the spending habits of the nouveau riche.

Tuhao once meant rich landowner -- the villainous landed gentry and class enemy of communist China's proletariat -- but the term's modern revival began with a popular joke that made its rounds on Chinese social media in early September. A young man asks a Zen master, "I'm wealthy but unhappy. What should I do?" The Zen master responds, "Define 'wealthy.'" The young man answers, "I have millions in the bank and three apartments in central Beijing. Is that wealthy?" The Zen master silently holds out a hand, inspiring the young man to a realization: "Master, are you telling me that I should be thankful and give back?" The Zen master says, "No … Tuhao, can I become your friend?"

This rather lame joke struck a chord with China's middle class, a rapidly expanding group that now numbers over 300 million. As a middle-class lifestyle grows increasingly normal, so has disdain for flaunted wealth. Many Chinese would now say they consider themselves the antithesis of tuhao -- educated, fashionable, and disdainful of conspicuous consumption. After taking office in November 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping started cracking down on corruption in the Communist Party. Chinese officials, some of the most notorious wearers of tuhao goods, cut down on ostentatious purchases, and luxury brands suffered.

At the same time, Chinese live in a society where understanding tuhao is valuable, catering to tuhao taste is lucrative, and making tuhao friends is sensible. Multinational corporations, while wary of going against Xi's policies, understand this. Fancy a Hermès bag with the Chinese national flag on it? Done. Want to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a watch with a Chinese zodiac motif? Why, you have more than 20 to choose from.

Tuhao had their breakout moment on Sept. 20, when Apple introduced a gold version of the new iPhone 5s smartphone. Despite initial disbelief that Apple would indulge such tackiness alongside its Zen-like tradition of elegant design, the gilded phone has become insanely popular in China, where it is known -- even in state media headlines --as the "tuhao gold."

The tuhao concept extends beyond gilded gadgets. On Sept. 22, members of Hollywood royalty, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Harvey Weinstein, and Nicole Kidman, flocked to the seaside Chinese city of Qingdao for the opening of a cinema complex owned by developer Wang Jianlin, whom Bloomberg calls China's richest man. China's Internet users labeled the event an "Extravaganza of Tuhao" and a celebration of "Haollywood" [sic] because while Wang's company spent a considerable amount of cash to lure the big names to Qingdao, the event's fusty Chinese flavor reduced its glamour factor. A-listers rubbed shoulders with security guards in uniforms styled after those worn by soldiers in China's People's Liberation Army; elderly locals performed Chinese opera. The country's middle class, it seems, is conflicted: The nouveau is surely gauche, but the old is still uncouth.

Among stiff competition, the most famous tuhao on the Chinese Internet in early October was a nameless woman in backwater Anhui province. Chinese media reported that she gave a Bentley worth approximately RMB 4 million (about $650,000) to her son-in-law as a wedding gift. Some allege the reporter fabricated the story, but it has already caused uproar online, where responses range from derision to expressions of real or exaggerated jealousy of the young man's good luck.

Those combinations -- derision and jealousy, dirt and splendor -- go to the root of the conflicts undergirding modern, gilded-age China. Wealth alone is proving to be an empty promise, yet it remains essential for many kinds of access and influence. Small wonder that while Chinese may resent tuhao and poke fun at their taste, making their acquaintance (or better yet, marrying into their families) remains a convenient and enviable way to move up China's increasingly treacherous social ladder. Reactions to the Bentley story "highlight a blatant opportunistic mentality" among our youth, commented a blogger who goes by the name Jumo. "If our young people didn't face so much totally unfair and unclear competition in their personal lives and careers, they would not have to bear so much pressure or be so impetuous, anxious, or old before their time." Then perhaps they wouldn't need their mother-in-law to buy them a Bentley.

Tea Leaf Nation


Is China's top intellectual property rights enforcer using pirated software?

In Chinese, the word for irony is fengci, and it often refers to incidents that are embarrassing and easily mockable. In August, for example, officials at a zoo in central China tried to pass off a large dog as a lion. More recently, the agency tasked with coordinating the protection of intellectual property rights in China appears to be using pirated software. In early October, Weisi Dai, a graduate student in privacy engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, stumbled upon a pdf slideshow file on the website of China's State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO). The file's contents were unsurprising, but the property tab listed the author as "Tomato Garden," a website notorious for providing pirated software.

On Oct. 6, Dai posted a screenshot of his findings on Twitter; other users then reposted the information on Sina Weibo, China's own Twitter-like social media platform. As of Oct. 14, the pdf was still available for download on SIPO's website, with "Tomato Garden" still listed as the author.*

Formerly one the biggest pirates of Microsoft software in China, Tomato Garden was a Robin Hood of the Chinese Internet, providing software that retailed for approximately $150 in China for less than a dollar. After authorities began investigating the company in 2008, Sina, one of China's largest Internet portal sites, surveyed over 150,000 Chinese and found that 80 percent supported Tomato Garden.

Chinese officials were less inclined to be lenient, however. In August 2009, courts sentenced Tomato Garden founder Hong Lei to three-and-a-half years in jail, in what the state-run English-language newspaper China Daily called "the biggest crackdown on software piracy in recent years." In April 2010, SIPO lauded the Tomato Garden takedown as a "very influential case" and a "warning to pirates." Released from prison in September 2011, Hong stated he planned to abandon the "path of piracy" in favor of legitimate pursuits. But Hong's hacked software is still widely available on the Internet.

It is possible that SIPO obtained the software through legal channels, and the author's name was somehow changed to "Tomato Garden." But clearly, that's unlikely. The Beijing Youth Daily, one of Beijing's most widely read local papers, noted the irony in the incident, while the popular news portal Netease ran an article claiming "SIPO is slapping itself in the face" by using pirated software. On Oct. 10, SIPO told Xinhua, China's largest news agency, that it had launched an investigation, but emphasized that all employees used authorized software. (SIPO did not return a request for comment.)

Illegally downloading software is widely accepted in China, and many Internet users greeted the news with a shrug. "Just throwing this out there: how many Chinese today actually use legit software?" wrote Weibo user Wang Xiaoben. Another commenter's reaction to the news was even more blasé: "The world keeps turning," he wrote.

*Correction: The original article stated that SIPO was accused of using pirated Adobe software. In fact, SIPO was accused of using pirated Microsft software. Foreign Policy regrets the error. 

Screenshot by Liz Carter/SIPO