Mass consumption in China

A Harvard professor encounters China's burgeoning consumer culture.

My hotel in Xi’an China – the historic capital that is home of the terracotta warriors and where I have been giving some lectures at Xi’an Jiaotong University – is in the middle of a newly developed mall/tourism area encompassing a large swath of land not too far from downtown. (Given the size of the redeveloped area and the tendency in China to displace large numbers of people for new construction with hardly the bat of an eye, I asked what was in this area before its recent redevelopment, and was told it was “villages,” which seems slightly implausible given how urban the surrounding area is.)

The theme of the whole complex is the Tang Dynasty, with faux (though to my eyes attractive) old Chinese-style architecture, statues of ancient figures lining the middle of the widest boulevard in the area, and a Tang Dynasty theme park near the shopping areas. In all, the feel reflects the interest in China in ancient dynasties – the Tang were about a thousand years ago – rather than a modern Chinese history featuring first decline and humiliation by the West, and then the years of Communism.
 
The blocks of stores that dominate the area give an interesting insight into Chinese mass middle class consumption. There is no Gucci or Louis Vuitton here, though the manager at my hotel noted with some satisfaction that Xi’an’s first Rolls-Royce dealership lies next to the hotel. Instead, there is a lot of American fast food (Pizza Hut, KFC, Subway, and Dairy Queen all within 100 feet of each other), along with Japanese noodles (Ajisen) and some Chinese food as well.
 
I spent a while in a mid-market, Chinese brand department store outlet called Vanguard, which had a range of items such as clothing and electronics but compared to an American counterpart was more dominated by food and personal care items. Both its similarities and its differences with counterparts in the West are noteworthy. For somebody raised on images (and personal experiences, at least as a visitor) of Eastern European communism – where the arrival of a supply of over-ripe bananas could generate lines stretching a city block – the most striking similarity with US stores was the mounds of fruits and vegetables piled high and bountifully plentiful. Some of the items on display were different from those you’d see in an American supermarket, but the overall effect of abundance and prosperity was similar. Prices were about 60 percent of what they would be in the US,  though with Chinese wages, the items were more expensive relatively.
 
A second similarity was the dominance of Western brands – Colgate, Olay, L’Oreal – in the personal care section. I don’t suspect any of these products are actually made in the US (the packages were pretty much entirely in Chinese, and I don’t know if there are country of origin labels; I would guess a lot of these items were made in China, Thailand, or Malaysia). But Western brands were definitely holding their own. In other parts of the store I saw a huge barrel filled with Snickers bars, and a detergent section with endless variants on Tide detergent.
 
Perhaps the biggest difference between this store and a counterpart in the US was the large number of sales staff, several milling around in each section, not just in consumer electronics or fruits and vegetables but in personal care and packaged foods sections. There were a fairly significant number of product demonstrations going on around the store, and I was approached several times by staff, asking me if I needed help. This suggests a role in educating new consumers about what’s out there.
 
At the risk of appearing either naive or of embracing a crude economic determinism, I did think as I wandered through this temple to popular consumption that it was hard to imagine Americans and Chinese being different enough or hostile enough to each other ever to get into a bad fight.

PS.  Some China miscellany: A major bridge collapsed early in the morning – when there wasn’t even much traffic on it -- in the northeastern city of Harbin, killing three people. This was the sixth bridge collapse in the last year in China, “renewing worries over the quality of Chinese infrastructure amid a construction boom across the nation,” as the China Daily put it. Also, there has been a fair amount of publicity in China around a slightly weird adaptation of ancient Confucian principles of respect for parents issued by the “Office of the National Committee for Senior Citizen Affairs,” providing 24 examples of how children can show “filial piety” in today’s world, including teaching one’s parents to use the Internet and phoning them at least once a week.

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