A leather belt from Hermes priced at almost $1,000 — nearly a year's salary for the average Chinese farmer. A bright pink, $2,000 trouser suit from Emilio Pucci. A red snakeskin Celine handbag that costs $4,500.
These weren't items at a fashion show, but luxury goods spotted on delegates hurrying to China's annual legislative assembly sessions.
The casual toting of such exorbitantly expensive clothing and accessories illustrates China's ever-widening wealth gap. And it also underpins claims that the country's legislative body — more or less a rubber stamp for government policy — is becoming a "rich man's club."
"When I first saw so many delegates wearing luxury items, my first response is to wonder whether they could come up with proposals concerning the bitter lives of ordinary people," says a 23-year-old photo editor, who asked that her name not be disclosed. The photo editor was the first to collate and post the photos online, but said she wasn't making a statement against rich people, she was simply raising her concerns regarding corruption.
"China doesn't really have a transparent and just system of supervision, such as publicizing officials' wealth," she says. "The most obvious and effective way of doing this is seeing what they're wearing, especially luxury items which are not necessities."
There was public outrage at "Beijing Fashion Week," as netizens sarcastically called the annual meeting of the legislative assembly. It prompted an order from the Communist Party's Central Propaganda Department not to hype the "gourmet food," clothing or accessories of the deputies.
But the truth is the National People's Congress, or NPC, includes some of China's richest people. This is partly because being a legislator or government adviser is only a part-time commitment, so many also hold high-paying jobs. It also stems from the decision 10 years ago by Communist Party Secretary-general Jiang Zemin to allow capitalists into the party.
Wealth Concentrated In Few Hands
Rupert Hoogewerf, publisher of the Hurun list of the 1,000 richest Chinese, says a recent report by his group showed that the top 70 NPC delegates are probably richer than the entire U.S. Congress. This, he says, is "rather ironic considering China is a developing country and the U.S. is the most developed country in the world."
In fact, the wealthiest 70 delegates are worth $89 billion. According to Bloomberg News, that's 11 times the net worth of the entire U.S. Congress, plus the U.S. president, his Cabinet and justices of the Supreme Court.
"It's very much a chicken-and-egg scenario: is it because they're rich that they become powerful? Or is that they're powerful that they become rich?" asks Hoogewerf. "The general consensus is that it tends to be that they've been successful individuals in their business world, and therefore they've been co-opted into the top political advisory boards."
Hoogewerf's research found that 152 of the richest 1,000 Chinese held a seat on one of these top advisory bodies, with their wealth amounting to 44 percent of the total wealth of everyone on the rich list. And the wealthier the person, the more likely they are to hold political office.
All this adds to the criticism that the NPC has become a club for the wealthy. It's criticism that Cao Zhaoyang, an NPC delegate and chairman of the board at Aeolus, a company that makes car tires, denies.
"My company has 3,000 workers, and I have dealings with them every day, so I need to know what they're thinking. I also need to know what the bosses think, and what the state thinks," Cao says. "So we, as a class, have our advantages. But it's an exaggeration to call it a rich man's club."
But others, even those who are wealthy, disagree.
"Most of those who attend the meetings are either wealthy or powerful," property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang wrote on his microblog. "They are defending vested interests; the rest are toadies. There are only a few outspoken deputies, who are there to perform a show for the media and public."
Few Rich Representing The Vast Poor
How the changing composition of the bodies affects debate is clear; four years ago, China's second-richest woman, Zhang Yin, who was then a deputy to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) advisory body, proposed three "pro-rich" amendments to the law, including reducing personal income tax for the super-rich.
There are questions whether wealthy deputies would vote against their own interests, when it comes to issues like a property tax or a law forcing officials to disclose their own assets.
However, overshadowing the NPC's wealth is its sister body, the CPPCC, which has just finished its annual session. According to Hurun, it is even wealthier than the NPC, with the richest 70 members owning assets averaging $1.5 billion each. Their wealth has increased by 14 percent in the past year, driven up by skyrocketing land prices and company stock offerings.
Huang Shaoliang is a real estate tycoon, the 797th richest person in China and a CPPCC deputy. He believes that rich people could be good for the advisory body.
"I don't think it's true that the body doesn't represent disadvantaged groups. It's the opposite. It's more representative," he says. "We dare to speak more and speak the truth."
But netizens don't agree, writing a satirical song that mocks the powerful and wealthy delegates for "singing happy songs" and suggesting proposals that don't go anywhere.
For all the power and wealth co-opted into China's congresses, it's a common belief they're simply rubber stamps for government policy. As the song's lyrics have it, the wealthy delegates "sing songs of praise and lie about the future."
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.