Nobody can pinpoint just when conspicuous consumption took over Beijing; in the course of the past decade, high-end boutiques sprang up along the avenues, German sedans started prowling the streets, and billboards have appeared flaunting "ultra-exclusive" "luxury" goods fit for "tycoons." INDULGE IN A SMALL VILLA, read one; BECOME A FOREIGN DIPLOMAT'S LANDLORD, exclaimed another. But if that trend was slow to take shape, everyone knows when the tide turned and elitism suddenly went out of official fashion. In May 2007, Beijing's no-nonsense Mayor Wang Qishan publicly blasted the bling-bling billboards. In an interview with China's official Xinhua news agency, Wang complained that the gaudy signs "encourage luxury and self-indulgence which are beyond the reach of low-income groups, and [are] therefore not conducive to harmony in the capital." Since then, hundreds of the offending advertisements have disappeared.
Call him the anti-Rudy. As mayor, New York's Rudolph Giuliani won great notoriety by cracking down on panhandlers, porn shops and squeegee men as part of a "broken windows" policing strategy. That theory—which soon inspired copycats from Arlington, Virginia, to Florence, Italy—posits that cleaning up disorder, decay and other symptoms of the low life can boost civic pride and revive a limping metropolis.
Beijing has the opposite problem. It's a city on the rise, now frantically preparing for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Neighborhood decay—along with entire neighborhoods—is disappearing to make way for new parks, swooping highways and glittering construction. So rich and exclusive has the city's image become—and so expensive its real estate—that Wang is now struggling anxiously to bring it back down to earth. The last thing he and China's leaders want when the world comes calling next summer is to look brash or uncaring about the country's less-fortunate citizens. China's income disparity, measured by its Gini coefficient, is already worse than the United States'.
Beijing is eager to turn that around—part of President Hu Jintao's goal to turn China into a "harmonious society" where the haves help the have-nots. Deng Xiaoping helped sell his market reforms in the '80s and '90s with brazen aphorisms like "To get rich is glorious." But such sentiments are now impolitic. On Oct. 15, Hu's "harmonious society" will get top billing at the Chinese Communist Party's congress; his philosophy is even slated to be enshrined in the CCP's charter. In fact, the concept of "harmony" has become so ubiquitous that Chinese bloggers who get themselves banned for criticizing the government now wryly tell friends they've been "harmonized."
But for Wang, at least, it's a serious matter. As host of the 2008 Games, the mayor will preside over the biggest coming-out party the world has ever seen. Pressure on Wang, 59, is building. He is used to such challenges; in the late 1990s, he was dispatched to Guangdong province to clean up the mess after the province's investment arm collapsed.
Still, "it's terribly difficult to run Beijing," says Yang Dali, who heads the East Asian Institute in Singapore, explaining that the city is not Wang's alone to govern. The omnipresent national government is parked there, and constantly breathes down the neck of municipal leaders (it sacked a deputy mayor for corruption last year). Assuming the Games go smoothly, however, this attention could pay off handsomely for Wang. Analysts say he could be promoted to the Politburo, become party boss of his old bailiwick, Guangdong, and possibly even become prime minister one day.
This prospect of higher office links Wang to Giuliani. Yet what worked in the Big Apple won't sell in the Big Cabbage. In New York and around the United States, the flamboyant Giuliani likes to boast of how he shrank the city's welfare rolls and cracked down on "quality of life" offenders; he even once tried to block Chinese immigrants from setting off New Year's fireworks. Wang, by contrast—who worked on a farm doing manual labor during the 1966–1976 Cultural Revolution—must show far more concern for the little guy. He'd love to expand Beijing's welfare programs, or at least be seen trying. And he's not above populist feel-good measures; last year municipal authorities overturned a longstanding ban on New Year's firecrackers in the city center, reasoning that they are a "Chinese tradition." Even in an increasingly global city such as Beijing, it seems, all politics remain stubbornly local.