4:26am

Thu April 7, 2011
Asia

In Beijing, Even Luxury Billboards Are Censored

In China, certain words — like "Tiananmen Square" and "democracy" — have been politically sensitive for decades.

But that list seems to be growing ever longer. Now, words like "regal" and "luxury" have fallen foul of political correctness, and are being removed from billboards in the Chinese capital, Beijing.

But Beijing's attitude toward luxury is somewhat contradictory — only the ads, not the products themselves, are being restricted.

A Move 'Against Ostentation'

On a busy road in a Beijing suburb, a billboard promotes a new property development whose name translates literally as "the impression of a royal castle." The picture shows a woman in a flowing red satin dress standing in front of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It's laughable, perhaps — but the billboard will soon be forbidden in China's capital.

The city's new rules state that ads must not glorify "hedonism, feudal emperors, heavenly imperial nobility" or anything vulgar, according to the Global Times newspaper. They also should not violate "spiritual construction" standards or worship foreign products — leading some to believe the campaign could be targeting foreign luxury goods.

"The truth is that the party has very clearly started what is very clearly a campaign against ostentation in China," says David Wolf of Wolf Group Asia, a communications advisory agency. "There is a pushback against things Western. And there is the desire to see those Western things take a lesser role in the development of Chinese culture."

The Global Times reports that words such as "supreme," "royal," "luxury" and "high class" were originally forbidden as part of a cleanup campaign before the Beijing Olympics. But in recent years, they've crept back onto billboards again.

The Haves And The Have-Nots

China Daily reports that the campaign is aimed at protecting social harmony, quoting a sociologist who says advertisements that promote the belief that "wealth is dignity" could upset low-income residents.

But at the same time, China's new rich still have money to burn, and the country is second only to Japan as a consumer of luxury goods.

The luxury splurge is driven by people like 20-something Li He, who recently stood outside an upscale shopping mall with three friends, clutching a stiff brown Gucci shopping bag. He had just spent $450 on a leather belt. When asked if banning certain words will change his shopping habits, Li He scoffs.

"Those who should be rich are rich, those who should be poor are poor," he says. "Those who work hard get rich, while those who don't stay poor."

When asked what he works hard at, he replies, "I work hard at having fun." The leather belt, he admits, was bought with his parents' money.

That sticks in the craw of a construction worker who gave his name as Mr. Tang, who says he would need to spend more than a month's wages to buy a single Gucci belt.

"I feel uncomfortable seeing people waste money like that," he says.

Still, it's not as if Tang and his fellow workers will be burning Burberry billboards anytime soon. In fact, he says that he sees the new regulations as slightly ridiculous.

Questions Over Policy's Lasting Effects

Peking University sociologist Zheng Yefu also doubts the new rules will make any difference, given the images lionizing wealth and luxury that abound in China's media.

"Our TV shows are full of shots of rich people's extremely luxurious lifestyles — their houses, their dinners, their clothes, everything," Zheng says. "But nobody is interfering with that. So will banning certain words from billboards really have any benefits?"

Despite the assault on billboards, Beijing's not taking aim at luxury goods in general.

On the contrary, it's considering cutting its high taxes on luxury goods, to encourage wealthy shoppers to stock up on their Louis Vuitton at home, rather than overseas. And China is starting to open up its low-altitude airspace under 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) to private planes, in a move that will create a new market in private aircraft for the super-rich.

Some analysts also point out that limiting the ability of foreign luxury brands to market their goods in Beijing could level the playing field, helping China's aspirations to foster its own luxury brands. So, Beijing may be using foreign luxury goods to send a political message — but it still wants to cash in on them. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Chinese government is taking on a new ideological task. In China, certain words are politically sensitive - for example, Tiananmen Square or democracy. And these days that list is growing. Words like regal and supreme have fallen foul of political correctness and so will no longer be seen on Beijing billboards.

NPR's Louisa Lim says the new government regulations reflect a certain unease with citizens whose tastes are distinctly non-proletarian.

LOUISA LIM: I'm standing on a busy road beside a billboard for a new development whose name translates something like the impression of a royal castle, and the picture's really quite spectacular.

(Soundbite of car horn)

LIM: It's a woman in a flowing red satin dress, standing in front of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

LIM: As of next week, this billboard will be forbidden in Beijing. New regulations say that ads will no longer be allowed to glorify feudal emperors, imperial nobility or anything vulgar.

David Wolf from Wolf Group Asia says it's part of a new campaign.

Mr. DAVID WOLF (Wolf Group Asia): The truth is that the party has started what is very clearly a campaign against ostentation in China. There is a pushback against things Western. And there is a desire to see those Western things take a lesser role in the development of Chinese culture.

LIM: It's a move aimed at protecting social harmony, the state media says, at a time when the wealth gap is widening. But the new rich still have money to burn, and China is second only to Japan as a consumer of luxury goods.

(Soundbite of traffic)

LIM: Driving that luxury splurge are people like 20-something Li He, who's waiting outside a mall with three friends, clutching a stiff brown Gucci shopping bag. He spent $450 on a leather belt. When asked if banning certain words will change his shopping habits, Li He scoffs.

Mr. LI HE: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Those who should be rich are rich. Those who should be poor are poor, he says. Those who work hard get rich, while those who don't stay poor.

(Foreign language spoken) When I asked what he works hard at, he says he works hard at having fun. His leather belt, he admits, were bought with his parents' money.

Mr. TANG (Construction Worker): (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: That sticks in the craw of Mr. Tang, a construction worker who will only give his last name. It would cost him more than a month's wage to buy one Gucci belt. I feel uncomfortable seeing people waste money like that, he says. Nonetheless, it's not as if Mr. Tang and his fellow workers will be burning Burberry billboards anytime soon. In fact, he sees the new regulations as kind of silly.

Peking University sociologist Zheng Yefu also doubts they will make any difference.

Professor ZHENG YEFU (Sociologist, Peking University): (Through Translator) Our TV shows are full of shots of rich people's extremely luxurious lifestyles -their houses, their dinners, their clothes, everything. But nobody is interfering with that. So will banning certain words from billboards really have any benefits?

(Soundbite of TV show, "Fashion Kingdom")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Chateau Lafitte wine and Hermes scarves are namedropped in this is soap opera, with the politically dubious name of "Fashion Kingdom." But despite the assault on billboards, Beijing's not taking aim at luxury goods in general. On the contrary, China's considering cutting its high taxes on luxury goods so wealthy shoppers can stock up on their Louis Vuitton at home, rather than overseas.

Beijing may be using foreign luxury goods to send a political message, but it still wants to cash in on them.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

MONTAGNE: And this is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.