China's 'fake socialite': Student who lived for free for art school project caught up in wealth inequality controversy

When Zou Yaqi published a few short clips from her art project on Weibo she was not prepared for the controversy that followed.
PHOTO: Weibo

For 21 days in May, Beijing student Zou Yaqi lived for free; sleeping in the halls of extravagant hotels, trying on jade bracelets at auctions and working at an office in Ikea.

This exercise was no scam, however, it was a project for the student who was graduating from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. She recorded her experience on video, which was placed on display in June at the academy. In September, she published a few short clips from the project on Weibo. But she was not prepared for the controversy that followed.

In the Weibo clips, Zou showed herself eating free sample snacks at malls, sleeping on fancy couches and trying on expensive clothes.

She had chosen places she felt were relatively safe, such as hotel lobbies and the Haidilao restaurant chain, and to look the part she wore fancy clothes, a fake ring and a fake Hermes bag.

She wrote on Weibo that the project had stemmed from her long-standing interest in whether a person could live on the “excessive material” produced by society.

Zou spent 21 days in Beijing eating and sleeping for free.
PHOTO: Weibo

“In my experience, it’s interesting how these materials are distributed, they are usually assigned to people who look like they already have sufficient wealth in life — they can sleep in extravagant hotel lobbies for free, shower in the airport and use hotel beaches for free, eat at weddings or buffets ... or enjoy snacks and wine at auctions,” she wrote.

“So I pretended to be one such person ... and lived off these ‘excessive materials’.”

The project has received mixed reactions in China. Some said such discussion is meaningful, while some called her experiment: “a prank to get free food and drinks”. Another left a comment under her description of sneaking into a first-class airport lounge as: “using a policy loophole.”

Many said that she was “pretending to be a socialite” and “took advantage of a highly extravagant lifestyle”, with the word “fake socialite” appearing in the headlines of several viral blog pieces about her project.

The art student has found herself caught up in an ongoing backlash against materialism and wealth inequality in China. The gap between rich and poor has become an increasingly divisive social issue following China’s rapid rise in prosperity in recent decades.

Wealth inequality has surfaced as a major concern again recently following a government crackdown on celebrity pay , with the earnings of top stars like Zheng Shuang under scrutiny when it was revealed she earned more in a day than most people would in a year.

In August, President Xi Jinping said China must now move towards a fairer system that looks after those who are not yet wealthy now that the country had been lifted out of poverty, with what he termed “common prosperity” .

Zou has responded on Weibo to her critics, saying she is not a socialite and only looked like one due to her long preparation for the project, and that her intention was not to examine wealth inequality or define what a socialite is.

“Prosperity gap and class stratification are only temporary, the public will reach common prosperity sooner or later,” she wrote.

Some people adopted a more positive take on Zou’s experiment, pointing out that Zou’s experience differed from that of Sanmao, a famous child vagabond cartoon character created in the 1930s, with whom she was compared by some.

“We can say with confidence that she lived 21 days in the metropolis freely, relying on the tolerance and kindness of our commercial society,” said the Guangzhou-based Nanfengchuang magazine.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.