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While political activists in China suffer through a Kafkaesque nightmare, the upwardly mobile pursue a Gatsby-esque dream. As the middle classes earn more money, their desire for status symbols is growing as fast as China's booming economy. The latest object of their desire? Red wine.

NPR's Rob Gifford reports.

ROB GIFFORD: It's auction time in Hong Kong, and today it's not Impressionist art or antiques on the block, it's wine.

Unidentified Man (Auctioneer): I have a Lot 109, Lafite '82. I've got already 400,000 here, 420, 450,000.

GIFFORD: Christie's Auction House is selling 12 bottles of the classic Chateau Lafite 1982.

Unidentified Man: Five hundred and fifty thousand then, going to the first lot here. Lot 109 at 550.

(Soundbite of gavel hitting)

GIFFORD: Five hundred and fifty thousand Hong Kong dollars, together with the 20 percent buyer's premium is roughly $90,000 U.S. dollars. The market's gone mad, admits Christie's auctioneer David Elswood.

Mr. DAVID ELSWOOD (Auctioneer, Christie's Auction House): That particular wine, the Lafite, if you had gone back five years, it probably would be 10,000. And if you go back 10 years, it's probably like three or four thousand.

GIFFORD: Wine specialist at rival auction house Sotheby's, Robert Sleigh, says that Hong Kong is now an important wine center in its own right.

Mr. ROBERT SLEIGH (Wine Specialist, Sotheby's Auction House): It has been a meteoric rise where we'll now sell over $50 million worth of wine here this year, which is almost double our New York and London totals combined.

GIFFORD: One reason for that has been the recent abolition of Hong Kong's 40 percent import tax on wine. A second reason is the Chinese business custom of giving face to important clients by providing extravagant gifts.

Doug Rumsam works for wine importer Bordeaux Index.

Mr. DOUG RUMSAM (Bordeaux Index): At top level meetings, if you're not putting a bottle of Lafite on the table, not only are you're not giving enough face, you're probably running the risk of offending your client. And that's why it's a necessary commodity.

GIFFORD: Up the China coast in Shanghai, there's a third reason for the boom. China's burgeoning middle classes are starting to drink wine. At a tasting laid on by a group of French winemakers, Chinese buyer Elaine Xu, sums up the wine trend in one important word.

Ms. ELAINE XU: Lifestyle - it's a lifestyle, right? When people, you know, they have the money they want the different lifestyle. They want to improve their life quality.

GIFFORD: Twenty-eight-year-old Xu Qiang, gently cradling a glass of red wine, agrees.

Mr. XU QIANG: In the younger guys, like the age like me, they will think it's so cool. Yeah, like very Western and very modern.

GIFFORD: And the French visitors seem pleased too. Marie Helene Leveque is here from Chateau Chantegrive, a struggling producer in Bordeaux.

Ms. MARIE HELENE LEVEQUE: China is already the salvation of our chateau. (French spoken)

GIFFORD: Asia, she explains, now makes up 30 percent of her chateau's sales, up from zero percent six years ago.

Of course, there are 800 million people in rural China just struggling to make ends meet, never mind trying to differentiate a Bordeaux from a Burgundy. But says, Doug Rumsam, that untapped market is the reason China's so exciting.

Mr. RUMSAM: There is a following of top brands. There's a perception that fine wine is civilized and something that they would like to be associated with. So, so long as you bet on China, over the short to medium-term then you should bet that we've only just seen the start of it all.

GIFFORD: For now, it's especially French wines that are in demand, says Rumsam, but give it a few years, he says, and they'll be wanting Australian, Italian and Californian wines in large quantities, too.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, Shanghai.

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