Taming China's rich, spoilt heirs

More likely to be found at a private club or a high-end restaurant, 70 scions from wealthy Chinese families ensconced themselves in a Beijing conference room last weekend for some advice on how best to serve themselves and their country.

With an average age of 27, these heirs to business empires such as sports apparel chain Anta and men's fashion Septwolves recited Chinese classics on filial piety and learnt from a Confucian expert how to combine traditional merits with business philosophy, the Beijing Youth Daily reported.

The session was organised by the Siming district authorities in coastal Fujian province's Xiamen city at the request of the local entrepreneurs, who paid for the costs themselves.

Such training classes could soon become more commonplace as the Communist Party has set its sights on managing and co-opting China's scions - known as fu er dai or rich second-generation in Chinese.

President Xi Jinping last month tasked the party's United Front Work Department, which manages relations with non-party groups, to "guide private-sector businessmen, especially the younger generation, to help them think about the source of their wealth and how to behave after they become affluent".

The party's focus comes at a time when some fu er dai are making the news for all the wrong reasons.

In an article posted on social media, the United Front Work Department slammed the behaviour of some fu er dai for knowing "only how to show off their wealth, but don't know how to create wealth".

"If this behaviour becomes a common problem for family-run businesses and makes all private entrepreneurs look bad, or affects social confidence towards private businesses, it will no longer be simply an economic problem," it added.

Topping the list of misbehaving rich kids is arguably Mr Wang Sicong, the only child of China's wealthiest man, property magnate Wang Jianlin.

The 27-year-old stoked public anger earlier this year after he reportedly said his top criterion for a girlfriend was an ample bosom.

He also infamously strapped two Apple watches worth 250,000 yuan (S$54,000) on his dog's front legs.

Tomboy heiress Zhang Jiale, now 24, shot to national infamy in 2013 after she posted photos flaunting her extravagant lifestyle in private clubs and of her being surrounded by models and next to sports cars and private jets. Her father is reportedly Mr Zhang Jun, an electronics, property and insurance magnate in Shenzhen.

The son of an Australian-Chinese businessman, fu er dai Wang Shuo, now 33, has also been embroiled in controversy. He allegedly pointed a gun at another fu er dai during an argument after their cars collided in a street race in Beijing in 2010.

On June 7, a fu er dai in central Henan province was slammed online for his over-the-top birthday celebration for his girlfriend. He took her river-rafting and got more than 10 staff members to line the banks and salute them as their dinghy drifted past.

Reasons often cited for such exhibitionism include the overseas education that most of these rich, young Chinese enjoy, the advent of social media, and China's one-child policy that leads many parents to spoil their offspring with an extravagant lifestyle.

Social commentator He Jinjun told The Sunday Times that the Communist Party has to focus more on the fu er dai as they are deemed a demographic group that could pose a challenge to the party's influence and standing if not reined in.

"These people could sway public opinion, given their economic status and control over large businesses. They may pose a challenge to China's political system, especially since many of them are educated overseas," said Mr He, a researcher with independent think-tank Charhar Institute.

He said that by inculcating a sense of gratitude, the business leaders of tomorrow might learn to appreciate how their parents were beneficiaries of China's political system or government policies that they in turn should uphold and not seek to overturn.

Observers say there is a need to act now as 75 per cent of China's private businesses - 85 per cent of which are family-run companies - are likely to face succession issues in the next five to 10 years. The prospect of these companies failing in the hands of pampered and spoilt fu er dai, and potentially causing widespread unemployment, is what the Communist Party is trying to avoid, Beijing Institute of Technology economist Hu Xingdou, who studies societal trends, he told The Sunday Times.

Private enterprise provides about 80 per cent of jobs in China, on top of accounting for some 60 per cent of the gross domestic product and contributing around 50 per cent of the tax revenue.

"If these fu er dai do not know how to run a business, many private firms may go bust and lots of jobs would be lost, potentially causing social instability," said Prof Hu.

Recognising these risks, private entrepreneurs have sent their children for management classes organised by local governments, universities and private training academies as far back as 2007, though the Communist Party's decision to hold training classes would set a precedent.

The focus on traditional Chinese classics is also in line with the increasingly puritanical line under President Xi that has seen female models banned from car shows and cleavage edited out of drama serials.

The proposed move has also sparked a debate on whether public funds should be used for these privileged youth and whether attention from the establishment would make them feel more special and arrogant than they already are.

Social commentator Tang Wei believes that the fu er dai are entitled to publicly funded training.

Mr He, however, thinks they should also be made to pay for their own training, which could help mollify public criticism.

But some netizens question the impact of traditional Chinese classic classes on changing lifestyles and value systems.

Said one microblog user: "A person's virtues and lifestyle cannot be changed through a few classes. These fu er dai are not short of money or connections. It is better if the government gives the money to those poor children who want to improve themselves."

Others wonder whether government-run training programmes may end up as nothing more than networking platforms for these fu er dai and government officials, which may give them an unfair advantage over the less well-connected entrepreneurs.

Prof Hu believes such "training classes" may end up contravening the government's pledge to cut state intervention in the economic system.

Mr Li Fahai, who runs management classes for China's top corporations through his training consultancy, Goodidea Management Education Group, believes that the government needs to be open and transparent about the training programme for fu er dai and also do more than just holding such classroom-setting training.

"The government should identify successful entrepreneurs or corporate honchos as role models who can impart their value systems and management experiences to the youth in an on-job setting," he told The Sunday Times.


This article was first published on June 21, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.