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China’s ‘Sophisticated Poor’ Have a Bad Relationship With Consumerism

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Are you living a dream lifestyle on debt? While we wouldn’t advise it, it seems many young Chinese people are on that track.

This week, the trending hashtag ‘How to abandon the sophisticated poor lifestyle’ (#如何戒掉精致穷#) hit 140 million views on Weibo. The term ‘sophisticated poor’ has been a social media buzzword in China over the last few years and describes youth with a tendency to overspend to maintain appearances or enjoy elegant lifestyles, despite their low earnings.

From makeup to luxury brands, travel expenditures to extravagant meals at ‘it spots,’ there’s no shortage of categories in which the ‘sophisticated poor’ generation spends more than they can afford — swerving wildly outside their financial lane.

While this spend-more-than-your-means lifestyle is nothing new, this latest spurt of online interest seems to be related to videos from vloggers talking about tips to save money and abandon the ‘sophisticated poor’ lifestyle in 2022 amid the post-pandemic recession.

One self-proclaimed ‘sophisticated-poor’ netizen succinctly captured the essence of this lifestyle, writing, “I have worked for a few years and have zero savings. From the outside, it appears that I have a posh job and several luxury handbags, but they are so expensive that I rarely dare to use them outside.”

I can I BB online debate on 'sophisticated poor'

A promotional image for I Can I BB, an online debate show on which competitors have discussed the merits of the ‘sophisticated poor’ phenomenon. Image via iQiyi

Back in 2020, the term ‘sophisticated poor’ was a heated topic of discussion among participants on episode one, season six of iQiyi’s online debate show I Can I BB (奇葩说). 

The contestants were separated into two opposing debate teams. One team was tasked with defending the ‘sophisticated poor’ lifestyle, while the other team’s goal was to analyze the behavior critically.

The affirmative team argued that the ‘sophisticated poor’ phenomenon is about ‘self-love’ and ‘living in the moment,’ whereas the opposing team warned that the lifestyle promotes rampant consumerism among youth. The opposing team won in the end, with more online votes.

Among viewers of the show, opinions diverged. Some were convinced that a sophisticated appearance should not define one’s quality or lifestyle, with one Weibo user writing, “Nothing is more luxurious than a sophisticated soul. When you exuberate confidence, everyone will find you charming and attractive.”

Others agreed with the affirmative team and the main guest of the season, controversial actor and singer Yang Chaoyue, who stated: “It’s much more important to know how to earn more than to save. When we reward ourselves, we elevate our self-worth and feel more motivated to deserve more.”

Yang Chaoyue

Yang Chaoyue of Chinese teen idol group Rocket Girls 101 was on the affirmative team — supporting the ‘sophisticated poor’ lifestyle — on I Can I BB. Image via Depositphotos

Since 2014, tech giants in China have launched microloan services like Huabei (Mandarin for ‘let’s spend’) to facilitate small loans for daily expenditures. Such services have only propelled the ‘sophisticated-poor’ lifestyle.

With low-return rates and easy access that often requires no more than one click of a button, tech-savvy millennials are finding it harder to resist spending more than they can earn.

According to a report by Boc Consumer Finance, only 13.4% of some 175 million millennials in China are clear of debt. A whopping 86.6% have used or are still relying on internet loans, and 60% have requested loans to improve their quality of life.

Lindsay (who declined to provide her last name), an account executive in the advertising industry in Shanghai who sees no issue with the ‘sophisticated-poor’ lifestyle, tells RADII, “It’s no longer our parents’ generation. No matter how much we save, it is impossible to buy an apartment or a car by ourselves in this day and age in a first-tier city in China. Then why not spend the money on daily pleasures?”

With job layoffs hitting some Chinese industries (most notably China’s robust tech sector), it seems like as good of a time as any for youth in the country to start saving their hard-earned cash.

Cover image via Depositphotos

Weiyu Qian
    Weiyu is a writer and video creative. She is interested in gender issues, wellness issues and human psychology. She has been a correspondent in France for a major Chinese news outlet and launched Brut. 原色视频 videos in China. Weiyu has traveled extensively across Europe and enjoys skydiving and exploring the underwater world. You might find her checking out a new jazz club or swing dancing on the weekend.
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