Leaving the 'third world': is consumerism transforming China?

Author:Notar, Isabella


The 2008 Olympics illuminated Beijing's glaring prosperity driven by rapid growth in foreign direct investments and exports. On the other hand, China still receives hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from international agencies to battle pollution, deal with disaster and tackle endemic Third World poverty. (1) In spite of the fact that the CPC has now changed its constitution to allow entrepreneurs into the Party, this dichotomy has been viewed by many outside of China as the Chinese government's attempt to deliberately prevent the emergence of a middle class because of the threat such a class would pose to the One Party State's unity and stability. Those voices were loudest during the Clinton Administration's policy of de-linking the USA's economic agreements from issues of human rights abuses. Clinton policy, and largely those of other US leaders since him, seemed confident that, as the economy became more prosperous through using the export oriented model that delivered both economic and democratic results, the political will of the new emerging business class would steadily gain (if not demand) more voice in the political life of the nation. This apparently dated vision of some sort of Rostovian "take-off" development model failed to take into account the change in the political economy of emerging markets in this current age of globalization. (2) It furthermore seems to have underestimated the ability of the CPC to tap into the tremendous potential of the Chinese consumer. The old neo-liberal model describes individual consumer demand as a result of long-term mature market growth. This notion has had great appeal among First World leaders since the start of the post-colonial era, but assumes that the pattern followed by 19th century Europe is the only possible model to produce a sustainable advanced industrial economy that caters to the consumer.

In the wake of the Cold War when many of the features that previously defined a "tripartite" world order, China has moved toward an alternative route to a consumer economy. Asian "tigers" [Hong Kong, Taiwan, S. Korea, and Singapore] were hailed as high growth models using an export oriented approach. China initially followed this model in an effort to accumulate capital and stimulate production by using its greatest resource--its workforce. Few development economists in the 1980s and 1990s were predicting that a large, tightly controlled economy such as the PRC's could accomplish anything close to the "miracle" of the tigers' development. However China quickly became the world's workshop, much as it had been before the Industrial Revolution, and today is the world's second largest economy. In the process, China has also evolved into a multi-layered hybrid consumer economy influenced deeply by values from its earlier cultural history and by recent history as a semi-colonial country "liberated" by a communist revolution.

Scholars looking at earlier periods of Chinese history have highlighted the deep roots of Chinese consumerism, noting that since the Song Dynasty sophisticated regional and national markets catered to the demands for various qualities of cotton goods, cutlery, paper products, a wide variety of farm tools, various qualities of yarns, thread, fabrics and other items of daily use. Brand names were widely known and cost more than local competitive goods. (3) By the time of the First Opium War, China was already producing large quantities of processed tea, various grades of silks (many woven to specific design and specifications of European buyers), and a constant flow of porcelain. Indeed it was the balance of payments in China's favor that launched the sale of opium to reverse the flow of European hard currency (silver) and to force open more direct access to the sources of the goods being bought and hopefully also find willing consumers for the growing number of manufactured goods being produced in the industrial cities of the Europe and America.

China's economic nationalism simultaneously drove modern Chinese "nation-making" during the semi-colonial period from the mid-19th century through 1937. Whether it was the consumer boycotts against Japanese products during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 or the top-down and bottom-up approach chronicled by Karl Gerth in his study of the "National Products Movement," led by Chinese industrialist Cai Shengbai, who worked constantly to promote Chinese made goods and to protect China's enfant industries from foreign "dumping." He developed a national product certification campaign that categorized goods as "national patriotic products" or "foreign treasonous products" to teach "nationality" to consumers on a daily basis by reinforcing new patterns of group behavior and creating new systems of social regulation. Gerth argues that the appearance of nationalistic consumerism, as defined by the National Products Movement. played a vital role in creating a clearly defined sense of China's own unique consumer culture. (4) Moreover, it remains powerful today, as evidenced in the many concerns about trade deficit and manufacturers wondering how they will sustain their market share in an increasingly competitive global economy.

One old consumer value system that Western scholarship has generally seen as an impediment to developing a consumer society is wrapped up in the Confucian value system. W. W. Rostow's "take-off" model mentioned above set as a pre-condition to development a move away from "'traditional" society. Indeed, some have seen traditional views and values as an impediment to progress. Perhaps that helps explain why Confucian culture is often dismissed as a minor force when compared to communist and global influences. But 2,000 years of Confucian values and thought processes have staying power and is a force that undergirds the emerging consumer culture in China today. Explicitly, China is a communist state advancing personal consumption to drive economic development. Implicitly, it is a Confucian society dealing with age-old problems. Confucianism is not about rescuing people from poverty. Confucian values stresses respect for authority and primacy of the group over the individual to bring harmony and order to society. Consumer trends examined here illustrate that enduring Confucian traditions are still operating with echoes of support for the Confucian ethical doctrine heard in the voices of China's university students today.


In recent years, a substantial amount of research has focused on China's political decision to stimulate economic growth through consumer spending. China was a test site for analyzing consumerist ideologies in developing countries, as the government was treading a fine line between openness to consumerist values of First World countries and skepticism concerning its impact on China's closed political culture. Utilizing a novel Global Systems model to study consumerism, Leslie Sklair's work "The Culture-Ideology of Consumerism in Urban China," was one of the first to raise legitimate concerns about transnational corporations spreading consumerism worldwide by dominating Third World Media. (5) Scholars such as Pin Ngai and Kevin Lantham have documented the growing income inequalities in China since the 1990's and often cast the consumers as victims, vulnerable to the illusory appeal of consumer abundance that lies beyond their reach. (6)

Now that China appears to be on its way to evolving from one of the world's most equal income societies to one of the worlds' most unequal, academics are confirming the "stratified character of consumption practices in China". (7) Such inequalities have previously been the hallmark of Third World societies. Debra Davis encountered deep-rooted social change in her fieldwork leading her to dispute any linear interpretation of subordination arising from income inequalities. She presents a more balanced view of individuals who equate consumer activity with pride and emancipation as well as personal experiences of disempowerment. Jos Gamble's recent work "Consumers with Chinese Characteristics," portrays Chinese consumers as aggressive and demanding: showing popular indignation toward foreign brands that do not meet their expectations. (8)

Although spending is individual behavior, the complexity of consumer culture can no longer be studied at the individual level. China is a huge country developing out of its history in its own way. China's size and regional variations have always presented researchers with the challenge of over generalization. Many historians have noted how vital regional and ethnic tensions were to understanding the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 or the CPC's faulty blanket policies. Less clear is the purported cultural consumer unity in China today. All too often, a comparative account of what is happening at various municipal levels is missing from contemporary, scholarship on Chinese consumerism. However, several studies indicate that this is worth examining, since one of the key aspects of the reform movement has been the devolution of certain responsibilities to the localities.

Jae Ho Chung's work, Cities in China: Recipes for Economic Development, draws upon cross-disciplinary research covering 14 case cities to interpret the consequence of decentralization on economic development. The hypothesis drawn from analyzing local conditions is that a relationship exists between regional differences in circumstances and developmental paths in Chinese cities. He finds that while preferential fiscal and management arrangements granted by the central government have an impact on variations and geographic factors, historical legacies and locally inspired conditions cannot be overlooked. (9)

From Chung's research we learn that Guangzhou achieved rapid economic growth not only because of its strategic geographic location and favorable policy treatment, but...

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