It’s almost axiomatic by now that Chinese bureaucrats of all stripes should be careful what they wear on their wrist. On May 5, a sharp-eyed Web user spotted a host on state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) wearing an Apple Watch on her left wrist while giving a news report that day. After the user posted screen shots of CCTV host Wang Yinqi and her expensive timepiece, the photos spread quickly on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform, setting off a fervent debate about what counts as luxury and excess in contemporary China.
The photos initially attracted attention as an example of an ostentatious display; a spate of news articles and Weibo media posts on May 5 accused Wang of “showing off her wealth.” Some Weibo users chimed in to criticize Wang as well. “Official media should appear thrifty,” wrote one Weibo user, arguing that the image of official media and that of the government that controls it are closely related. More than one speculated without evidence that Wang, beautiful and in her mid-20s, might be mistress to a wealthy man.
Those claims are harsh (and unsubstantiated) – but the vitriol toward China’s reviled state broadcaster is more understandable. While CCTV has often served as an important mouthpiece for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s nationwide anti-corruption crackdown, now into its third year, the state broadcaster itself has been embroiled in several scandals during that time. In July 2014, authorities unexpectedly detained one of CCTV’s most outspoken hosts, Rui Chenggang. That same month, authorities held senior CCTV executive Guo Zhenxi for suspected bribery, and in August 2014 they detained Huang Haitao, a prominent CCTV deputy director, for alleged graft.
Expensive watches have become a symbol of corruption in China ever since August 2012, when netizens unearthed an image of provincial safety bureaucrat Yang Dacai smiling at the scene of a deadly traffic accident — and wearing a luxury timepiece likely beyond his modest means. Further images of Yang’s wrist-wear soon went viral on the Chinese web, sparking a grassroots campaign to oust him from office. It succeeded, and in September 2013, Yang was sentenced to 14 years in prison for corruption. Since then, party leaders have been careful either not to purchase luxury watches, or at least not to wear them in public.
Apple’s new watches are harder to categorize. The most expensive, retailing at up to $20,000 and called Apple Watch Edition, seems tailor-made for China’s still-massive luxe market; the priciest model sold out in China within two days of its offering. But lower-tier models can cost anywhere from $349 to $1,099, a similar price range as the iPhone 6, Apple’s newest smart phone model which after its Chinese release in October 2014 marked the first time more iPhones were sold in China than in the United States.
In other words, while Apple watches aren’t cheap, neither are they out of reach for members of China’s giant urban middle class.
That may explain why most web users among the thousands of commenters refuted the notion that Wang’s timepiece was anything glamorous. “What’s wrong with wearing an Apple?” one Weibo user wrote. “It’s priced for the common people.” “A few hundred dollars for a watch, and they’re saying it’s ‘showing off wealth,’” wrote one user on May 6 in a popular comment. Yet another wrote in a popular comment, “When a couple hundred dollars is flaunting riches, it’s a beggar country indeed.”
There’s no question that as a group, Weibo users, who mostly access the platform via smartphones, are more affluent than the country at large. But the online support for Wang (or at least, her timepiece) marks a turnabout from 2008, the year before Apple began selling its signature smart phone in China, when iPhones were the rare and much-coveted property of expats or overseas Chinese back for a stay in their homeland. Then again, according to World Bank statistics, in 2008, per-capita GDP in China was $3,414. In 2013, it was $6,807. That’s why Ms. Wang’s career is probably safe. As the ranks of China’s urban middle class and its elite continue to grow, the normalcy of even the newest and most expensive Apple products can be taken as a sign of the times.