Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China’s New Rich

Corruption in China is hard work. Osburg, an American anthropologist, spent time with and observed successful Chinese businessmen in Sichuan’s capital city, Chengdu. These men seem to devote most of their time to cultivating relationships with government officials and gang bosses in teahouses, karaoke parlors, and banqueting clubs. They enact rituals of male bonding that require the conspicuous consumption of expensive cars, exotic food and drink, and sexual services. These shared activities reconfigure instrumental relationships as friendships, bribes as gifts, and criminals as volunteers who help the police maintain social order. Women serve as entertainers, paid sex partners, status symbols, and sometimes co-conspirators. Osburg’s newly prosperous subjects are squeezed between the fear that rivals better connected than they are might take their property and the sense that the system they are part of is heading toward collapse. They feel trapped in a way of life that is exhausting and often boring, but the rest of society views them as models of success. Their behavior contributes to a widespread sense of moral decay in contemporary China.

Latest Commentary & News analysis