Game over for the Beijing Playboys
The Beijing Playboys - a nickname given by internet users to four wealthy young men known for their extravagant lifestyles and romances with actresses - have once again become the hottest topic online after one of them was recently charged with illegal possession of weapons.
Wang Shuo, 29, was also charged with destroying evidence after a showdown with another member of the foursome, Wang Ke, in December.
Wang Shuo allegedly pointed a gun at Wang Ke after a car race through the capital ended when they both crashed. He then reversed into Wang Ke's car, which burst into flames. Mainland newspapers said Wang Shuo fled the scene and told three security guards employed by his company to destroy evidence, including video footage taken by surveillance cameras.
Police later found that Wang Shuo possessed four other guns, 2,000 air-rifle pellets and six military bullets.
Five staff at his company have been charged with helping him buy firearms and with destroying evidence. Prosecutors filed the case on September 2 and Wang Shuo is due to stand trial in Beijing's Dongcheng District People's Court.
The court case has reignited public interest in the four young men - tabloid reports and internet gossip delve into their personal lives and long lists are drawn up detailing the number of actresses to whom they have been linked.
In Chinese, they are called jingcheng sishao (literally, the capital's four young masters). It was a nickname first given to four young, upper-class celebrities during the early days of the Republic of China at the beginning of the last century.
The new Beijing Playboys are: Wang Ke, 31, an investment company boss who has his own Boeing 737 jet; Wang Shuo, director and deputy general manager of real-estate company Beijing Wangfu Century Development; Wang Xiaofei, 30, chief executive of the South Beauty restaurant group; and Wang Yu, a 36-year-old property tycoon.
They are not related and publicly reject the public's sobriquet for them.
The original Beijing Playboys were Zhang Boju, a Peking Opera aficionado; Zhang Xueliang, an anti-Japanese hero and son of a Manchurian warlord; Pu Tong, a cousin of the Qing dynasty's last emperor, Pu Yi; and Yuan Kewen, son of Yuan Shikai, the military chief who became the Republic of China's president and crowned himself emperor in 1915.
Mainland internet users have been making unfavourable comparisons between the new playboys and their predecessors, who were as well known for their achievements as they were for their romances.
The 21st-century versions are famous only because they are rich and have a long list of love affairs and luxury cars to their names.
Since December's alleged attack, mere gossip has turned into an outpouring of public condemnation. Analysts say that while some of the criticism may be fair, the four have also become scapegoats for public anger over the acquisition of wealth by some mainlanders through illegal means and connections. The result has been a widening of the wealth gap and a growing sense of injustice.
Being young, the Beijing Playboys represent the second-generation of the mainland's new upper class - a target for mixed feelings of envy and anger.
Professor Xia Xueluan, a Peking University sociologist, said the widening wealth gap has become the main source of social grievance. Big bank balances are viewed as ill-gotten gains courtesy of corruption.
He said the public was in no mood to be sympathetic when two of them turned on each other.
Professor Zhou Xiaozheng, a Renmin University sociologist, said: 'The fathers of the second-generation rich acquired their wealth through illegal means, and the second generation is no better. [Basketball player] Yao Ming acquired his wealth through his capabilities and everyone likes him. When talking about the hatred of the second-generation rich, people are actually upset about how they got rich.'
Wang Ke, who is married to actress Liu Tao, wrote on his blog that he was not happy being called a Beijing Playboy. He said he was a legitimate businessman and the publicity was hurting his career.
But the extravagant lifestyles of all four are undeniable and they are hardly discreet.
For example, Wang Ke threw a four million yuan (HK$4.8 million) wedding party when he married Liu, who was famous for her performance as Ah Zhu in the television drama Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils. They married after only 20 days of dating.
Their wedding party made a big splash in the capital - even the car park was like a luxury motor show, featuring marques such as Lamborghini, Ferrari, Porsche, Rolls-Royce and Mercedes-Benz.
However, while Wang Ke has admitted to having business problems since being cast as a Beijing Playboy, how he accumulated his wealth remains a mystery.
Wang Shuo is no less of a talking point because of the amount of money he is willing to spend on his celebrity girlfriends.
When he was dating famous actress Zhou Xun in September last year, he asked his friend Hong Kong actor Jaycee Chan - Jacky Chan's son - to bid 3.38 million yuan for a rosewood model of a Qing dynasty official's home at a charity auction in Beijing ... because Zhou loves rosewood.
On October 18 he set off fireworks to celebrate Zhou's 35th birthday, almost triggering a fire. Private fireworks displays without official authorisation are strictly prohibited in the capital.
Like the fireworks, their romance was colourful but short-lived, lasting less than six months.
Before Zhou, Wang Shuo reportedly dated actress and producer Fan Bingbing, actress Li Xiaolu, actress Niu Meng Meng ... the list goes on.
Wang Shuo's father, Wang Zhicai, an Australian-Chinese businessman, also hit the headlines when he married actress Wang Yan, 20 years his junior, in 2000.
Wang Shuo and his father live at one of Beijing's most sought-after addresses, Wangfu Shiji, which means Prince's Residence of the Century. It sits in the capital's Wangfujing commercial district and has spectacular views of the Forbidden City.
The licence plates on the cars Wang Ke and Wang Shuo were driving when disaster struck have also served to fuel the public's anger.
Wang Shuo's Volkswagen was reportedly bearing a plate owned by an internal office of the Central Guard Bureau, a special government agency responsible for the personal security of top party and state leaders.
Wang Ke's plates came from the People's Liberation Army's general staff headquarters. It's not clear how the two Wangs obtained the privileged plates, but it all helped to stir up the anti-rich backlash.
'They are all driving privileged vehicles, but which one of them is the more powerful?' a commentary in Southern Metropolis News asked.
Fellow Playboy Wang Xiaofei has not escaped criticism. He is the only child of Zhang Lan, founder of the South Beauty restaurant chain, which includes Beijing's super deluxe private club Lan in its stable.
Wang Xiaofei came under attack after reports that one of his franchised restaurants used recycled oil - 'gutter oil' - for cooking. He denied the allegation but later confessed that one of the franchisees used gutter oil for the food cooked for their staff, but not the customers. He later terminated the franchisee's contract.
In November, Wang Xiaofei, whose previous liaisons have included actress Zhang Yuqi, married Taiwanese actress Barbie Hsu Hsi-yuan.
Compared with the three other Beijing Playboys, Wang Yu has come in for less criticism due to his blue-blooded background and achievements, even though he has been dubbed the most romantic bachelor on the mainland.
He is the youngest son of former Shanghai mayor Wang Daohan, who chaired the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait and represented Beijing in talks on cross-strait issues in the 1990s.
Wang Yu, who studied in Britain, is reportedly an outstanding musician and an expert on red wine. Reports about him have mainly focused on his relationships with Hong Kong actress Cheung Man and mainland actresses Zhao Wei, Huang Yi, Chen Zihan, Jiang Xin and Li Yu, who died of cancer in 2009.
In recent months, Wang Yu has kept a low profile. Internet users say he more closely resembles the Beijing Playboys of a century ago. Even then, the bloggers and commentators agree, the modern ones remain a far cry from their predecessors.
Additional Reporting by Laura Zhou
How much Wang Ke spent in yuan on his wedding to actress Liu Tao. They had dated for just 20 days