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China targets ads to maintain equality

The world's second-largest luxury market has a new apprehension of the word 'luxury' and conspicuous consumption as its policy-makers monitor public discontent over unaffordable housing and a widening gap between the rich and poor. Reshma Patil reports.

world Updated: Mar 25, 2011 01:32 IST
Reshma Patil

The world's second-largest luxury market has a new apprehension of the word 'luxury' and conspicuous consumption as its policy-makers monitor public discontent over unaffordable housing and a widening gap between the rich and poor.

From April, the words 'supreme, royal, luxury and high-class' will be banned in outdoor advertisements promoting homes, vehicles and wines in Beijing. The news was tucked inside the state-run China Daily this week, under the sweeping headline: Ads promoting wealthy goods, lifestyles banned. It warned companies that they faced fines up to 30,000 yuan (R2,10,000) for advertisements that promote 'hedonism' and the 'worship of foreign-made products'. Authorities in megalopolis Chongqing reportedly issued a similar notice on promotions flaunting 'irreplaceable' apartments.

To a visitor, the Chinese capital with a central business district remodeled after Manhattan luxury in the last decade, looks imposing and formidable. But with an eye on the unrest in authoritarian regimes, its planners and the state media are increasingly commenting on the risks of social instability in the fastest-growing economy where 150 million still live in poverty. "The Chinese society still lacks enough ability to handle instability,'' a Global Times editorial said on Thursday.

Scrubbing a few billboards hardly seems like the solution for social harmony, but analysts think the move matters. "Many advertisements promoting the belief that wealth is dignity can upset low-income residents,'' rued sociologist Xia Xueluan. Premier Wen Jiabao recently affirmed that narrowing 'unfair' income inequalities would be a target for the next five years.

But there's no covering up Beijing's Manhattan makeover for its central business district including its own Twin Towers with fan-shaped roofs. I step out of my apartment, where a former Olympics souvenir store, bakery and nail spa have been transformed into property agencies. On the pavement near the World Trade Centre housing a new Tiffany, two salesmen in suits stand with a board listing prices of luxury homes. Across the street, a placard in Central Park promotes 'exquisite lifestyle' in an 'international community'. A separate government signboard beside it urges you to promote civility and 'build a harmonious society'.