Tea Leaf Nation
The West: Source of All Evil, Including Chinese Scion’s Boob Joke
It's now fashionable to blame the West for all manner of social (and personal) ills.
When China’s second-richest man Wang Jianlin, a real estate mogul worth $29.4 billion, sat down with state media for an Oprah-style interview this week, he was clearly in crisis-management mode. A little over a week earlier, his son, Wang Sicong, had sparked a scandal by telling reporters at a Valentine’s Day charity event in Beijing that what he looked for in potential dates was a “big rack.” Though Sicong insisted he was joking, state media was not amused and the official Xinhua News Agency published an editorial on Feb. 15 comparing him to former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose lecherous antics have been well documented. Hong Kong-based English-language South China Morning Post called it “Buxomgate.”
But the real scandal, at least according to the elder Wang, is Western influence. On Feb. 24, the elder Wang told state-run China Central Television that while his son was smart, he had left China to study abroad in elementary school, making his thinking very “Western.” Sicong is “very independent,” the billionaire said, and added that his son says whatever comes into his mind. “Though he’s been back three years, that’s still a short time. It may take five or eight years of being back for him to really become Chinese.” The younger Wang, who has a degree in philosophy from University College London, did not respond to a request for comment from Foreign Policy sent via the social network Weibo.
It was a pretty flimsy defense. After all, the elder Wang has a Western fixation of his own, even if it’s one trained on the bottom line, not bust lines. His company snapped up British yacht maker Sunseeker for $1.6 billion in June 2013 and also owns AMC, the biggest movie theater chain in the United States. In November 2013, Wang paid $28.2 million for a Picasso painting.
Still, Wang’s remarks show how fashionable it’s become in China to invoke “The West” as an all-purpose bogeyman. On Jan. 29, China’s education minister cautioned students against slandering Communist Party leaders and said that “textbooks promoting Western values” were forbidden in Chinese classrooms. This week, China’s Supreme People’s Court warned judicial officials against being caught up in Western-style thinking. “Resolutely resist the influence of the West’s erroneous thought and mistaken viewpoints,” the top court said in a statement quoted Feb. 26 by Reuters.
The anti-Western rhetoric is part of a campaign under President Xi Jinping to get party members and the general public to toe a stricter ideological line. But it also seems to be about misdirection, or getting the public to pin frustrations on a faraway culprit rather than focusing on problems at home. Fears of Western influence are as much a measure of Chinese anxiety about domestic problems as they are concern about whatever moral erosion American television has actually inflicted.
Dali Yang, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and the faculty director of the university’s center in Beijing, says the antagonism toward the West seems primarily rhetorical at the moment, but it could have real life impact. “It does raise some concern and it affects business sentiment,” Yang told FP. He added that government declarations against Western thought and ideas could turn off those considering relocating to China.
As for mogul Wang, though he blames the West for corrupting his son’s thinking, the bigger issue seems to be a yawning generation gap. After being skewered for his rogue-ish comments, the son took to social media to defend himself and was showered with support from Chinese men — and women — alike. Over one hundred thousand users “liked” a Feb. 15 Weibo post in which he wrote, “I was clearly joking when I made the busty remark! Yet people still take it as real! As if I am that shallow!”*
Yang, the University of Chicago professor, said the father-son rift was rather like a “Paris Hilton situation” — a mogul trying to cope with a spoiled and unruly child who happens to have a taste for public attention. While Sicong’s time abroad may have changed him, China itself has also transformed massively since Wang Jianlin was a young man. “In two generations, Chinese society has totally changed,” Yang said. And there is great uncertainty about what shared morals or values people want to embrace. It can be easy to pin problems on the West, but in China’s case, an acute generation gap seems the more likely culprit.
*Correction, Feb. 27, 2015: Over 100,000 users liked Wang Sicong’s post. A previous version of this article misstated that number as over 1 million. (Return to reading.)