An American billionaire warned, “You show me a highly unequal society and I’ll show you a revolution or a police state.”
But, the mainland Chinese super rich are not worried about the possibility of either states. Just look at the kind of scotch whiskey that they collect and drink. It can only be attained with a “wealth beyond avarice” kind of net worth.
The label: “Whisky Distilled in 1948 and 1961. A special vatting to commemorate the marriage of HRH The Prince of Wales to Lady Diana Spencer on 29th July, 1981. Strathisla. Bottled in 1981 by Gordon & MacPhail, Elgin, Scotland,” guaranteed a unique tasting and investing experience.
This kind of historical significance is beyond priceless according to Gil Lempert-Schwarz, founder and director of Dragon 8 Auctions. He specialises in the kind of wine and spirits that are particularly sought after by China’s one per cent. “There aren’t many assets or collectibles left that are able to command their enthusiasm. They are looking beyond fine wine and into rare spirits.”
This is how he articulates exclusivity. “Only 500 bottles were produced out of two casks for the wedding dinner. No one knows how many remain. 1948 and 1961 represent the birth dates of the couple as well as the dates of the two casks.” He doesn’t even bother quoting a price. Buyers, like one of China’s internet billionaires, will pay whatever is needed.
Price discovery and volatility are high. In 2005, a bottle of the Macallan Fine & Rare 1926 sold for a world record price of US$53,414. A decade later, a single large format bottle of Macallan in a Lalique crystal container, labelled “M”, sold in Hong Kong for a record US$628,205.
Despite market turbulence, flaunting wealth remains an image problem for China. The government wants to minimise the “bling” and the scornful attention it has attracted globally. But there is nothing they can do outside of China.
One of the more avidly watched bling reality shows for Chinese is “Ultra Rich Asian Girls of Vancouver.” It follows the dining and real estate shopping adventures of half a dozen young women who are from rich mainland families.
Don’t confuse it with the “Real Housewives” series, where one of the women described her main source of income as “two divorces.” Or the “Shahs of Sunset,” which showcases the present day elite Persian community in Beverly Hills. The only similarity is that their lives orbit around their own social order, which is vital for maintaining a semblance of security in a lifestyle of never ending conspicuous consumption.
Like Russia, China’s experience with the nouveau riche shows that capitalism is the only system that works, despite its flaws. Only it can fulfil the universal desire for more. Whether or not the political institutions that remain in those countries can remain stable and prevail over flaws like economic disparity is the unanswered issue.
Perhaps China’s super rich should learn from European old money, which has been forced to survive and prosper through wars and political upheaval. Conspicuous consumption is the way new money asserts success. But, old money knows it is far safer to be quiet, secluded and less visible with their wealth.