Chinese watch buff becomes corrupt officials’ pet peeve by practicing hobby: watch-spotting
From Southern Weekend
Recently, a microblogger, who goes by the name, “huaguoshan zongshuji” (花果山总书记, literally, General Secretary of Huaguo Mountain) has drawn national attention and made his mark on the Internet. A connoisseur of timepieces, he combs the vast sea of information online for pictures of Chinese officials wearing wristwatches, recognizes the brands and models, and publishes the product details, including their market prices on his microblog.
Chinese netizens all give him the thumbs-up, saying he combines Sherlock Holmes and the little boy who cried “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!” in the tale The Emperor’s New Clothes, in that he demystifies the high-quality and luxury goods and gives the in-your-face slaps at the officials. But many of those high up in the hierarchy hate his guts. Some telephoned him or wrote to him, “Do not ever write about me.”
The harsh dichotomy between officials’ and netizens’ attitudes toward the blogger has shown the cross-purposes of a watch in the Chinese society: it can be a display of an official’s power and social status to peers and whom s/he is dealing with; or it can be a trump card for fashioning an official’s frugal and upright image to higher-ups and the public; or, sometimes, it can be the last straw that breaks a corrupt official’s back.
Predictably, the microblog account “General Secretary of Huaguo Mountain” was deleted after a flurry of media coverage and online sensation made Chinese authorities restless over the unwanted attention on corruption.
Screenshot of a post by “General Secretary of Huaguo Mountain”: ‘I said I would not post anything about the Constellation, but I can make an exception the lady. Ms. Jin Chuang’ai, deputy director of Jilin’s Bureau of Quality Inspection (back then vice mayor of Liaoyuan City). Her Constellation with diamond looks like a rose gold 1168.79.00, priced at 89,800 yuan. If it is yellow gold, it is 96,600. Who says women are inferior to men?’
His knowledge of watches comes from his enthusiasm for and conscientious study of clockworks since an early age. Since he began his career, he has come across many best-selling watches while interacting with people in the circles of politics and business, and has gradually become an expert and aficionado.
The idea of watch-spotting flashed into his mind after the deadly train wreck took place on July 23 in Wenzhou. He spotted an over 70,000 yuan (US$10,800) Rolex on an official among the news photos. He kept tracking down the official on the web, and found he had worn numerous luxury watches on various occasions.
His method of collecting these photos is simple: Type in “party secretary,” “bureau chief,” and “provincial governor” as key words in Google Image Search, and then choose “large size,” watches of all kinds on officials’ wrists just pop up one after another.
Screenshot of a post by “General Secretary of Huaguo Mountain”: “Regarding the watch by Mr. Wang Qinghong, director of Shandong’s Charity Federation, I can only say, it ‘looks like’ a Rolex 116233 model.”
Or if a photo is still small, he goes to the government’s official website and searches for high definition photos.
Unless he is a 100 percent sure, “General Secretary of Huaguo Mountain” always writes “Seems like …model.” Better safe than sorry, he figures. He hopes that, after repeated photo juxtaposition and research, each of his conclusions can stand the test.
His discoveries include, the head of a Communist Party Organizational Department of a city in east China wearing a 80,000 yuan ($12,000) Jaeger-LeCoultre watch on his trip to slums to dole out cooking oil, which is enough to buy a whole train car of cooking oil, a mayor of a capital city in west China owing a Cartier watch, which is priced at 60,000 yuan ($9,000) on the market. A high-raking officials who once worked at the Chinese customs owns Omega, Rolex, Glashutte and Cartier. The watches that can be seen on his wrist on the web are worth almost 400,000 yuan ($61,500).
“General Secretary of Huaguo Mountain” found that among millions of models of designer watches around the world, Chinese officials seem to love only a handful of them, including, Rolex, Omega Constellation, Longines and Rado Ceramica.
Mr. Tong Xing, vice governor of Guangdong Province. Santos De Cartier. Looks like W20098D6. Priced at 43,000 yuan.
In western countries, politicians wearing luxury watches can be a blunder and play into the hands of their rivals and critics. George W. Bush wears a $50 Timex with a black strap. Jorg Gray 6500 costs around $350 apiece and is not labeled as a typical internationally famous brand. However, it has become popular among young people as it is “a watch worn by President Obama.”
It is a tacit understanding that every Chinese official owns at least one or two expensive designer watches. What is surprising is that they actually have the nerve to take it out and put it on in front of the public.
“Generally speaking, officials in the inland are bolder than those in the coastal regions,” “General Secretary of Huaguo Mountain” said. He met with quite a number of officials in a province in east China, and seldom saw them wearing watches on public occasions.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t own any. “General Secretary” has found through his intensive web research that some officials wear affordable watches, but if you dig out photos of their families, you will find their watches are high-end products.
Or, some officials will flash around with their prized possessions only on private occasions.
“General Secretary” said he once saw a department chief wearing a 700,000-yuan ($11,000) Patek Philippe watch on a dinner party in Beijing. In addition to its whopping prices and reliable quality, the Swiss watch maker has also become well-known for its clever advertising slogan, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe; you merely take care of it for the next generation.” While the watch was dazzling, he seemed to be very cool about it. Businessmen at the party tried to ingratiate themselves with the boss by heaping praises on his taste for watches. He then took off his watch and passed it to them, “There, you can have a look at it.” “General Secretary” thinks the Chinese officialdom is all about pecking order and hierarchy. The message the official wanted to send was, “I am the boss. I wear Patek Philippe.”
However, “General Secretary” said, once there are officials of higher ranking on site, these officials will keep their heads down and never wear a better watch than their higher-ups. For example, Longines La Grande series range from several thousand to tens of thousand yuan. In some places, if a provincial governor wears a 30,000 yuan model, a mayor will wear a 20,000 yuan one, and the county chief will choose a model worth several thousand.
Among all officials whose watches have been featured in the microblog posts of “General Secretary,” a national tax bureau chief is the only one that responded to his comments. The bureau chief said he bought his Omega Constellation watch, priced at 49,900 yuan ($7,700), in a duty free store in France six years ago. It was about 6,000 yuan cheaper than the market price in China, and his income was okay, so he bought it.
However, the response did not in the least dismiss doubt lingering on netizens’ minds. Can a bureau chief, whose monthly wage as a Communist Party official on paper is as moderate as several thousand, really afford to pay the watch out of his own pocket?
Communist official Zhou Jiugeng wearing a designer watch
In 2008, Zhou Jiugeng, the director of Nanjing’s property bureau, was brought down by public furor over extravagant lifestyle that doesn’t add up for a public servant after eagle-eyed netizens highlighted a Vacheron Constantin watch worth over $14,000 on his wrist in one picture available online. He is convicted of accepting bribes from contractors and other officials and sentenced 11 years in prison.
However, to his surprise, after “General Secretary” practiced watch-spotting for a while, netizens’ tolerance has increased a great deal. A watch cheaper than $15,000 cannot create that much buzz or flurry of criticism these days, as netizens have grown accustomed to the timepieces on officials’ wrists.