Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2013, 248 pp.
Review by Émilie Tran
John Osburg’s work was published at a time when China was engaging in an unprecedented anti-corruption campaign targeting “tigers and flies.” A far cry from the media headlines trumpeting the fall of the latest tiger, Anxious Wealth is an ethnography of the world of the “flies,” and in particular entrepreneurs, in China. Based on a field study he carried out in Chengdu, the author sheds light on the habitus of the entrepreneurs with whom he spent time in the capital of Sichuan.
The introductory chapter duly defines the subject of the research and sets out the inherent theoretical framework. Taking the concepts of networks and guanxi as the starting point, the author proposes a closer examination of human relations, whether based on shared interests or defined by the roles assumed by men and women, finally exploring corruption and the state. Each of the four subsequent chapters looks at specific aspects of these relations, thus helping to define, over the course of the book, the habitus of Chinese entrepreneurs with regard to money and morality.
The second Chapter, “‘Entertaining is My Job’: Masculinity, Sexuality, and Alliances Among Chengdu’s Entrepreneurs,” immerses the reader in the environment of codified pleasures of massage parlours, saunas, and karaoke bars in post-Mao China, and explains how business relations are built up and maintained, literally based on women’s bodies.
Chapter 3, “‘Relationships Are the Law’: Elite Networks and Corruption in Contemporary China,” tangibly illustrates two ways in which the power of elites is exercised, on the one hand via privatisation of the state or, in other words, the appropriation of public property by elites who do not operate in the public sphere, and on the other, via penetration by cooptation by members of the mafia, with whom the author had the opportunity to rub shoulders. Osburg thus aims to demonstrate that the formation of networks and the extension of power do not take place directly in exchange for money, but involve multiple ways of exercising power and values expressed in many forms.
Chapter 4, “From Fruit Plates to License Plates: Consumption, Status, and Recognition Among Chengdu’s Elite,” examines the way of life led by entrepreneurs who have succeeded, and the distinction that exists between the “bling-bling” new rich and more educated and cultured individuals who seek to set themselves apart. Although the latter criticise the diktat of the flaunting of luxury products and the ways in which they are consumed, they cannot escape it, because it is precisely these social practices that allow their peers to recognise them, and therefore their status, in the successful entrepreneurs’ club.
The final chapter, “Women Entrepreneurs and the ‘Beauty Economy’: Sexuality, Morality and Wealth,” looks at the role of women, and in particular those described by He Qinglian as “grey women” (huise nüxing) in an essay written in 1997.[i] These women are considered to be neither totally “white” and pure, like married women and legitimate future wives, nor completely “black,” like the prostitutes associated with the shady world of the sex industry. Grey women are the mistresses and second wives (ernai) of rich and powerful men, and the hostesses and escorts in certain bars, restaurants, and massage parlours. Using the most basic capital, constituted by their own body, they try to gain the maximum profit they can while still in possession of their youth and beauty. In this regard, they too are entrepreneurs, in the “beauty economy” (meinü jingji).
The immoral behaviour of grey women, the excesses of officials, and the dishonesty of businessmen are all factors that contribute to the inevitable depreciation and decline in moral values in present-day China. Yet no society can survive in a complete absence of morality, and rather than lamenting the plain and simple loss of these values, the author maintains that they have been redefined under the effect of the profound changes that have shaped post-Mao Chinese society. In his concluding chapter, Osburg advances the notion of suzhi (personal quality) to measure the degree of morality and responsibility demonstrated by the players with respect to the public. Osburg therefore proposes that, rather than judging a certain businessman, political leader, or grey woman for his or her private actions, they should rather be considered according to how their wrongdoings or good deeds affect the public. While there is no evil in displaying one’s social status with a luxury car, driving too fast, knocking over pedestrians, and fleeing the scene would show a lack of suzhi. Keeping a mistress or being a grey woman does not mean that the man or woman in question leads a depraved life. On the other hand, the same entrepreneurial new rich man or woman can demonstrate their high degree of suzhi by sponsoring charitable organisations. As defined, suzhi, argues the author, is very similar to the notion of “producer of life” (yangsheng) present in several philosophical Chinese traditions, or indeed the ideal of the Confucian businessman (rushang).
For anyone with close or distant links with Chinese society today, Anxious Wealth does not contain, in itself, any revelations: the practices and lifestyles of some of these leaders, entrepreneurs, and grey women can be seen at first hand by the attentive observer, and the media are full of news stories relating to this field. Similarly, the cinema and television content of mainland China is, like anywhere else, a reflection of its times and of the morals that hold sway. It necessarily deals with these questions, often implicitly, but also more openly, as in the four-part documentary on the current anti-corruption campaign, entitled Zuofeng jianshi yongyuan zai lushang (Relentlessly ensuring the integrity of the state). Produced by the Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and broadcast on CCTV in late 2014, this documentary recounts all kinds of setbacks and the debauchery of officials who have already been sentenced for corruption offences or are currently awaiting sentencing. However, for anyone from another geographical area of study, Osburg’s work offers a good introduction to the ways of life, value system, and power games of a certain category of Chinese entrepreneur and new rich.
[i] He Qinglian, “Huise nüxing ji qita: yuanshi jilei shiqi de zhong shengxiang” (Grey women and others: The social creatures emerging from the period of primitive accumulation), Zhongguo Baogao Zhoukan (China Report Weekly), 8 January 2005 [1st publication, 1997], www.china-week.com/html/2358.htm (accessed on 15 April 2015).
Translated by Will Thornely.
Émilie Tran is associate professor at the University of Saint Joseph in Macau, where she heads the Department of Public Administration and International Relations (firstname.lastname@example.org).