During a series of lectures given on his 2011 visit to China, the American political philosopher and Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel asked students at the country’s top universities if it was fair that hardware stores charged more for snow shovels after a blizzard. Sandel estimated that around 90 percent of his audiences supported price hikes, a curious phenomenon given that 85 percent of audiences in Germany, Switzerland, and Canada opposed the move.
Sandel then exclaimed that Chinese society had seemingly embraced the market economy so enthusiastically that most people believed market principles should apply to a wide range of everyday contexts. The anecdote partially inspired his 2012 book, “What Money Can’t Buy,” alongside other such typically Chinese phenomena as ticket scalpers for public hospital appointments.
If he were writing that book today, Sandel could add “face loans,” or liandai, to that list. In the last year or two, growing numbers of young Chinese people — most of them women — have applied for loans from internet finance companies in order to fund cosmetic surgery, agreeing to pay it back in installments after the procedure is completed. Specialist clinics cooperate with companies willing to lend tens of thousands of yuan. Lax vetting procedures mean that those with poor or nonexistent credit histories — for example, cash-strapped university students — can get a loan quickly and easily, often by showing their ID and student cards.
Of course, many people take out loans to finance activities that others find contemptable or vain. But face loans differ from most moneylending because they deliberately dangle large sums of money in front of insecure young women on whom the lender has not done thorough background checks.
The somewhat grotesque combination of cosmetic surgery and easy-to-access loans shows that the Chinese economy is growing financialized to the point of absurdity. Both Ping An Insurance and the People’s Insurance Company of China, two giants in the domestic industry, offer a service called “bear kid insurance.” Using a newfangled term for loud, unruly children, the scheme protects parents or guardians of children under 18 years old in the event that their untamed offspring harm other people or damage property.
Another new and highly influential financial service to emerge in China in recent years is the online personal microloan. Known colloquially as “peer-to-peer” or P2P loans, these services raise money from private depositors, pool the funds, and issue borrowers with microloans up to a maximum value of 200,000 yuan ($31,600).
At first, the Chinese government hailed microloan services as a way to help people take out small personal loans, citing widespread faith in the ability of big data to reduce the risk of contract violations. Yet after a series of cases showed some P2P firms failing to return depositors’ money on time and at the promised interest rate, the government has since rowed back and moved to clean up the industry.
Yet similar problems persist: Last year saw the exposure of an illegal practice known as campus loans. Again, lenders primarily targeted female university students, requiring them to submit naked photos or videos as collateral for the loan. Students who defaulted were sometimes blackmailed into performing sexual services in lieu of monetary repayment, or else their photos would be uploaded to the internet.
I must stress that, at present, there seems to be nothing illegal about face loans. But what does it say about China’s prevailing social ethics? For one thing, if lenders are confident that most people who take out face loans will be able to repay them, it is likely because lenders understand the value of good looks in a society that attaches ever greater importance to appearance when valuing and appraising women.
There is compelling evidence that people considered less attractive are more likely to suffer from social discrimination, and that this problem disproportionally affects women. As early as 1994, in their paper “Beauty and the Labor Market,” the economists Daniel S. Hamermesh and Jeff E. Biddle noted that “plain people earn less than people of average looks, who earn less than the good-looking.” China has also produced its own studies backing up these findings.
The real question is how deeply this culture of discrimination runs through Chinese society. Many online blogs have highlighted, analyzed, and satirized the country’s materialism and superficiality over the last few years, a subject that has placed several well-known catchphrases into the popular lexicon: for example, “In this world, your face is what matters most,” and “Face-score is justice,” referring to a humorous term for judging how good-looking someone’s face is.
Meanwhile, online social platforms have made it easier than ever to monetize our good looks, if we’re lucky enough to have them. Smartphone apps with built-in filters allow users to whiten their skin, redden their cheeks, lengthen their legs, and taper their chins until they look stereotypically beautiful, while social media and microblogging software like Weibo and WeChat give us platforms for showing off.
At the top of the so-called beauty food chain sit a small cohort of young actors known more for their physical appearances than for their professional credentials. They cultivate vast fanbases through a slick combination of social media PR and television appearances, which allows them to demand huge sums for every project they take on. Below them are internet celebrities, who mostly make a living from product endorsements. Further down the chain are the country’s livestreamers, the most popular of whom can make a few million yuan annually by streaming videos of themselves performing songs or titillating viewers with nonexplicit sexual content. The vast majority of actors, internet celebrities, and livestreamers share the pointed chin and large round eyes that largely define modern Chinese beauty standards.
Today, as more and more people see plain looks as the primary obstacle to higher earnings, they are turning to cosmetic surgery in search of a solution. Face loans are both a cause and an effect of this trend: Their emergence both reflects society’s preoccupation with materialism and enables those who otherwise may be ineligible for other loans.
Face loans are concerning not just because lenders seek to profit from unabashed social discrimination. More unsettlingly, the practice shows how financialization is creeping into the very bodies of Chinese people, encouraging us to cut out, appraise, and market our physical forms in return for an indefinable economic reward.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.