Xi's egalitarian streak runs into reality
By Brendan P O'Reilly
Xi Jinping has been at the helm of the Chinese Communist Party as general secretary for only a few months, yet he has already revealed one main objective of his reign. As concerns over China's growing wealth gap continue to mount, extravagant official opulence will no longer be tolerated.
He has launched several campaigns against conspicuous consumption in the People's Republic of China. However, more concrete actions to better the lives of China's hundreds of millions of rural and urban poor will be needed to offset the potentially destabilizing effects of China's widening income disparity.
Xi launched a clampdown against lavish spending by government
officials almost immediately after ascending to power late last year. The red-carpet entrances, exchanges of luxury gifts, and serving of expensive dishes and liquor that once accompanied official occasions were banned by decree. Additionally, China's Central Military Commission in December announced a prohibition against serving alcohol at all military events.
The far-reaching effects of these two modest reforms show the degree to which China's high-end alcohol market was dominated by the purchases of government officials. The cost of top-end bottles of baijiu - China's most popular liquor - has fallen by a third. Kweichow Moutai, the producer of China's most famous brand of baijiu, saw its value as measured by market capitalization fall by more than US$2 billion. While official banquets have no doubt become rather monotonous affairs, Chinese consumers are reveling in the savings, which came just in time for boozy family dinners that often accompany the Chinese New Year.
Now Xi is expanding his effort against excessive consumption from Chinese officialdom to the general society. A public awareness movement against food waste was launched before the Chinese New Year (the official holiday ran from February 9-12), calling on Chinese consumers to curb their extravagant appetite. According to state media, more than 750 Beijing restaurants responded by offering smaller portions in their dishes.
Official reports have also lambasted the waste-encouraging "minimum fee" system for reserving private rooms in restaurants. Beijing resident Shen Yin explained the wasteful practices of restaurants in China:
In a restaurant near my home, dinner usually costs less than 70 yuan [US$11.22] per person. But if you make a reservation for a separate room so that you and your family members can enjoy a more private dinner, the restaurant requires a minimum 100 yuan fee per person, which means that we have to order more food than we need. 
Television broadcasts now feature public service announcements encouraging the Chinese to waste less food. In response to both official decrees and a grassroots Internet campaign against food waste, more Chinese patrons are taking their leftover food home.
The government under Xi has expanded its campaign against ostentatious practices from the dinner table to the family television. Advertisements for luxury goods are now banned from China's state-run television and radio channels. When announcing the ban, the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television explained such advertisements "publicized incorrect values and helped create a bad social ethos".  The listed stock prices of corporations such as Burberry, Richemont, and LVMH took a serious drop in response to move.
Clearly, Xi is pushing the state to take the issue of excessive wealth display seriously. In order to understand these reforms, one must understand the context in which they were enacted.
Wealth gap woes
Exhibitions of affluence are nearly inescapable in contemporary China. After decades of extreme poverty, China's rich (and middle class) want to flaunt their newfound success. Certain aspects of China's culture and history exacerbate this cultural phenomenon. Mao Zedong attempted purposefully to destroy China's old traditional values during the Cultural Revolution. Then, the socialist ideals that were meant to supplant the traditional culture were largely eroded by the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping. China's people have little to believe in.
In modern China, "face" can now be gained by driving the newest car, wearing an expensive watch, or texting on the latest iPhone. It is interesting to note that as of last year China has become the world's largest market for luxury goods after overtaking Japan - another East Asian country with a similar culture.
Meanwhile, there is growing discontent from China's majority. A government report in January found that China's Gini coefficient, the most widely used indicator of economic inequality, is at 0.474, making China one of the most unequal countries in the world. Just this month, Beijing announced a plan to fight the wealth gap by tapping the earnings of highly profitable state-owned enterprises and investing the money in social programs.
While living conditions have dramatically improved for every segment of the population over the last three decades, the Chinese street is increasingly angered by the widening wealth gap. According to a poll by China Youth Daily, over 75% of Chinese youth cited income disparity as the greatest threat to China over the coming decade.  Concerns over the wealth gap were even greater than anger over abuse of official power.
Discontent is even spreading to the ranks of the relatively prosperous. The owner of a small factory in Guangdong province, who preferred to remain anonymous, said, "The biggest problem in China is that there are too many rich people." He went on to specifically complain about those who earn wealth in China and then abandon their homeland by acquiring citizenship in Western countries. This expression of resentment came from a man whose income is easily within the top 2% of the Chinese population.
Problems of prosperity
There is a popular perception that Xi Jinping will crackdown on pervasive corruption and ostentatious wealth display. The campaigns against food waste, prohibitions against official consumption of expensive liquors, and the ban on luxury advertisements are incremental moves that could hint at deeper structural changes. Whether the expectation of Xi as a reformer is true or not, the mere expectation itself goes a long way in legitimizing his, and the Party's rule.
Of course, Xi is not himself free of the blemish of excessive wealth. A report by Bloomberg found that Xi's extended family has amassed billions of dollars over the last several decades. While no wrongdoing could be traced to Xi himself or his immediately family, his close connections to extreme wealth add an interesting twist to his campaigns against conspicuous consumption. Perhaps wealth itself is not the problem, but rather the socially destabilizing display of such prosperity in a country that is still largely poor.
If Xi is indeed serious about tackling the extreme corruption and materialism endemic to modern China, then he will come against some serious opposition from powerful entrenched interests. In order to make meaningful structural reforms, Xi may seek popular support from the Chinese citizenry. It is possible that Xi at the top may attempt to make common cause with the masses in order to combat ingrained corruption.
Indeed, Xi's shrewd use of social media hints at such a possibility. An account on Sina Weibo - China's hugely popular microblogging service - was opened in November, just after Xi's ascension to the top of the Chinese Communist Party. This user has had unprecedented access to the CCP leader. Intimate photographs of Xi meeting poor peasants, napping on buses, and (most relevant to his crusade against waste) eating a simple meal in a canteen, have been captioned by folksy praise for the leader. Over half a million Chinese netizens now follow Xin Jinping's online "fan club".
Private Chinese citizens often use the Internet - specifically Sina Weibo - as a forum to name and shame the most egregious of corrupt officials. If Xi can couple online activism with top-down reforms, then his efforts to curb the most obvious abuses of official power may have a chance of success. However, real structural reforms aimed at increasing the transparency of government and the accountability of Chinese officials can do more to uproot rampant corruption and improve Xi's popularity than any social media campaign.
Furthermore, superficial attempts to hide an increasingly widening wealth gap can only temporarily alleviate this deeply engrained threat to economic, social, and political stability. Xi must act to improve the economic situation for China's rural and urban poor - through efforts such as establishing universal healthcare, providing better educational opportunities, and guaranteeing a minimum income.
Even the most sagacious of government economic policies can do little the change the overly materialistic popular culture of modern China. Recent official attempts to revive Confucianism, if sincerely enacted, could provide a means for reducing rampant greed. After all, Confucius told his followers: "With coarse rice to eat, with water to drink, and my bended arm for a pillow - I have still joy in the midst of these things. Riches and honors acquired by unrighteousness, are to me as a floating cloud."
It is unlikely that China's most revered scholar, whose teachings form the backbone of East Asian culture, would approve of huge banquets of shark fin soup, or the avaricious discontent of China's upper middle class.
Fewer advertisements and cheaper baijiu can only appease the masses for a limited time. Xi has revealed his goal of increasing stability by attempting to curb the most egregious excesses of China's elite. However, real and drastic reforms will be necessary to quench the Chinese people's thirst for social justice and public morality.