A Chinese official was recently fired after an internet campaign revealed that he owned 11 luxury watches. The official, Yang Dacai, claimed he purchased the watches with his modest civil servant salary, but Chinese internet commentators countered that Yang could not possibly have afforded them on just his legitimate income. The Chinese Communist Party is currently investigating Yang for disciplinary violations.
Yang first attracted internet attention when he was photographed smiling at the scene of a deadly traffic accident. Following this online outrage, anonymous internet users on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter), scoured the internet for other pictures of Yang, identifying pictures showing him wearing an Omega Constellation valued at up to £6,500 (about $10,000), and a Constantin, worth over £20,000 (about $32,000), as well as other luxury watches and accessories.
This type of intense internet scrutiny of one individual is increasingly common and is referred to in Chinese as a “renrou sousuo”, which translates to “human flesh search.” These human flesh searches are often used by Chinese netizens to expose officials suspected of corrupt or immoral behavior.
It is doubtful that netizen campaigns alone can end illegal bribery in China. But while the country continues to struggle with corruption, it would not be surprising if Chinese officials (whether honest or dishonest) and others, in an attempt to avoid public scrutiny, turn away from conspicuous luxury goods and toward less obvious means of enjoying their wealth. This could lead to growth for discreet luxury goods that are not instantly recognizable to the general public.