Materialism, consumerism, superficiality, shallowness…whatever you want to call it, with just a quick glance inside one of China’s countless shopping malls, it can be easy to form the conclusion that Deng Xiaoping’s famous quote “to get rich is to get glorious” (致富光荣) strikes true with many Chinese people today. Similarly, walking down the street in almost any Chinese city you're bound to see a large number of iPhones, iPads, Galaxy Note IIs, Beats by Dre headphones and other high-end electronics in use and on display, all before some spoiled twenty-something brat comes speeding around the corner in his or her brightly colored Audi. Broadly speaking, China’s love affair with modernization and materialism is hard to deny. But is it really fair to assume that “average” Chinese people all pine after the latest gadgets or care only about getting their hands on a designer Gucci bag?
I must admit, as I began researching for this article I was pretty stumped with the endless flurry of news reports pointing in favor of China’s über materialism. I discovered that China has more Gucci stores than any country in the world (59). I read that wealthy Chinese frequently take trips to Taiwan to fork out 25,000 USD on designer watches and that fancy shops in London’s Oxford Street have recently began employing Mandarin-speaking staff for the rapid influx of mainland shoppers. China currently accounts for 27% of the world’s luxury goods sales, and Chinese spend 9.4 billion USD on designer goods each year. All in all, it seems the stakes are piled highly in favor of China being the current king of consumerism.
Nonetheless, I’m going to stick my neck out in this article and argue that such extravagant behavior is only representative of a limited proportion of Chinese, not an all-encompassing society wide epidemic as we have been lead to believe. Citing some recent topics in the media, opinions from the online forums and the people I’ve met during my time here, I believe that there is a significant sector of the middle and working classes who hate nothing more than these rich show-offs who embody the “Chinese materialism” image.
Is the demand for luxury goods inside China mostly a façade?
Despite there being hundreds (if not thousands) of luxury goods shops in many of China’s larger cities, I’ve noticed that these shops selling their thousand dollar dresses and gold plated watches tend to be completely deserted most of the time. Think back—how many times have you been in an upscale mall and noticed that a majority of the shoppers were concentrated in the food court or movie theater? Fleets of sales clerks not withstanding, the actual shops in these areas are often eerily quiet. And when you do see Chinese consumers actually “shopping”, at least based on my personal observations, you’re far more likely to see them in less-expensive stores like H&M and Uniqlo than in high-end shops like Hermes and Prada.
For the average consumer in China—and we’re talking more than 99% of the population here—the price of imported luxury goods is simply far beyond their means. Sure, China is eclipsed only by Japan as the world’s leading luxury goods consumer (World Luxury Association estimates have it pegged at around 25-27%), and there are reportedly around one million millionaires in the country, but in a country of 1.3 billion people, that still amounts to less than 0.1% of the population. However, this is not to say that materialism and extreme wealth are always mutually exclusive—the recent opening of a Gucci shop in Nanning, which attracted around 2,000 customers in the first few days, is a strong reminder that some in China’s middle class like to “live large” from time to time too.
More to the point, what I’m arguing here is that China’s perceived materialism, frequently reported by the media based on the high number of upscale stores and malls as well as crazy events like the one above, do not paint an entirely accurate picture of consumerism in modern China. After all, how many of these new malls built by the government (in preparation of the 2008 Olympics) end up completely empty? We need only look at Dongguan’s desolate New South China Mall—the biggest in the world—for empirical evidence that the consumer demand for luxury goods inside China may have been artificially inflated in the past and is now leveling out. (It’s probably also worth noting that the number of wealthy Chinese that do their shopping abroad has substantially increased in recent years, as a consequence of China’s relentlessly unforgiving value added tax system.)
Re-emergence of Confucian ideals and traditional values
One cannot argue that many Chinese are caught up in the race to get rich. Given the county’s current lack of social welfare and the fact that most of the population lived in abject poverty just 25-35 years ago, it can be understood why. Many have argued however that this obsession with financial stability has caused many Chinese to entirely discard their traditions in favor of chasing the Yankee dollar. While there is no doubt some truth to this claim, amid the capitalistic chaos, there are subtle signs that these “materialistic” Chinese are rediscovering their traditions.
As the country has moved forward since the “anything goes” capitalism of the eighties and nineties, Confucian ideals have began to make a subtle comeback in the Chinese media, while programs encouraging consumerism have been toned down. For an example of this change in direction by CCTV, look no further than a series of lectures by Professor Yu Dan entitled “Confucius at the Heart” that recently aired. In addition, there’s also “Golden Marriage,” a popular TV show depicting a stable couple who are more concerned about each other’s happiness than they are about rushing down to the Apple store to pick up the latest iPhone model. Many commercials on TV also portray happy families engaging in traditional Chinese values, such as ensuring Grandpa is well looked after and the parents are getting their fair share of filial piety. Regardless of how you feel about the use of subliminal marketing to influence the minds of consumers, it’s clear that the authorities, concerned by the explosion of materialism in the country, are making (direct and indirect) efforts to usher in a return to the traditional and “harmonious” values that it deems as vital to the future of Chinese society.
Returning to the discussion of materialism and luxury goods in China, I believe that it’s also worth mentioning that not every person with a bit of spare change is in constant longing for a Swiss watch or an LV bag. Take Shang Xia, one of China’s leading luxury goods companies for example. Their products are based solely around objects of traditional Chinese culture like high quality tea sets, dynasty-style furniture, and porcelain jars—all of which are advertised amid settings of families drinking tea together and doing “cultured “ things like reading classic poetry. Given their recent pair-up with French giant Hermes, it seems that the return to old values and the rediscovering of what sets China apart may well be on the horizon.
What most Chinese people really care about
The strongest argument I can make against generalized claims that Chinese society is über materialistic, is that most people are probably far more concerned about the serious issues directly affecting their lives than they are about getting their hands on a designer Gucci bag or driving an Audi. While you may (rightly) argue that this is just as generalized a statement as the one I am arguing against, I believe that recent developments in the county and their widespread coverage by both official media as well as Chines social media support my claim.
The average migrant worker is surely more concerned with saving enough money to raise a family and send back home to his parents every month. The increasing rental costs in Beijing and other cities often exceeds average salaries, much to the chagrin of blue-collar workers and young professionals alike. Furthermore, there are frequent online tirades over traffic, pollution and food safety—an issue which over 80% of Chinese worry about according to a 2012 government survey—as well as greater institutional issues like corruption, transparency and the lack of rule of law. Perhaps most topical to this article are the countless Weibo posts and comments sections that show the near universal condemnation by netizens of the exact types of materialistic behavior that media reports and economic data would have you believe describe the modern Chinese society.
Personally speaking, friends of mine have shown varying attitudes towards materialism. Upon showing my Beijing friend ‘Gary’ my new watch, his first reaction was “I don’t think it’s an especially expensive one.” He also frequently banters with me about my apparent poor choice of phones (a five-year-old Motorola flip phone) and the size of my apartment (approximately 60 sq. m). On the other hand however, I’ve been invited into many Chinese people’s houses where the children spend their free time practicing calligraphy and learning the erhu while the parents sit around reading, drinking tea and talking about issues like the ones mentioned above. Other friends of mine in Beijing have repeatedly expressed disdain towards the “装逼” yuppies who hang around in Starbucks flashing their Macbooks and sipping on cappuccinos.
Conclusion – little rays of light?
As often seems to be the case whenever someone “goes against the grain” to explain China, I’m sure that a fair number of people will completely disagree with my opinion. While I acknowledge that the endless stream of data supporting China’s materialistic image is pretty damning, it was never really my intention to contradict the thousands of economists, Sinologists and other experts that do this sort of thing for a living. No doubt, during my time here, I too have seen signs that support such claims. But I’ve also seen little rays of light shine through, suggesting that this is not applicable to everyone here. Feel free to agree or disagree with me in the comments below.
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I love the way nobody has dared to counter your argument. Gutless wonders the lot of them! Or perhaps they all agree. Either way we can certainly agree that the written word is dead in this instance. What a shame too! And just as we seemed to understand the way of things!
Feb 26, 2013 00:17 Report Abuse
Yes I think the writer is mostly correct and I agree with most of his observations. High priced brand named shops seem empty most of the time because people just cannot afford to buy those items. A whole shopping centre here, Carrefours, closed for just that reason. I have just returned from the Philippines and the same goes there. Shops selling expensive clothing and accessories are empty and the food court and the sale stalls selling cheap stuff are well populated. But what gets me in China is that while people seem to earn such small salaries they all still seem to walk around with Apple ipads and smart phones none of which are cheap. Now there's a conundrum that has always had me bemused at people when they cry poor. The positively obscene line ups at Apple stores when a new product is launched just makes me laugh. My experience of Chinese is one of thrift and trying to eke out a living but I do also see the indecent flaunting of wealth by others! Might I add that I have seen the same in the western world as well. Keeping up with the neighbours is an expensive pastime!
Feb 26, 2013 10:04 Report Abuse
"Might I add that I have seen the same in the western world as well. Keeping up with the neighbours is an expensive pastime!" I agree completely. this same mentality exists in America, but people always attack china because of their materialistic views. While there are a higher percentage of luxury goods, its also interesting though to examine savings rates as well. Americans are probably one of the most in debt nations. Student loans, property, and of course Credit Cards. I love my friends, but there also dumb as shit (not that im in a different boat). I don't know many Americans purchasing things on CC's for nobel causes. Many of the Chinese I know pay for these sorts of things outright. I couldn't even imagine paying for a car or school up front.
Feb 28, 2013 01:10 Report Abuse
You are very right about the debt ratio. I pay for everything here in cash. Back home I could and would use a credit card. As long as China stays away from the unlimited supply of credit we all seem to enjoy in the western world they will be better off.....and pay cash for their little luxuries.
Feb 28, 2013 07:12 Report Abuse
The question one should ask here is ''if the average Chinese person could afford it, would he buy luxury products?'. And in that case I would have to say 'yes' in most cases. Simply because Chinese culture is driven by mianzi (face) and one of the best ways to gain mainzi is to flaunt your affluence by products. As can be read in Tom Doctoroff's 'What Chinese Want' they will do that mostly in products used outdoors where other people can see them. So they will drive expensive cars, wear expensive watches and handbags and drink expensive coffee at Starbucks where they can be seen. At home, out of sight, they will use cheap Chinese home appliances. So, the argument about what people do at home is not very relevant. Yes, there's a lot of (young) people on Sina Weibo that are complaining about this materialist behaviour, but the majority of Internet users are exactly the ones who cannot afford these goods. I wonder if they would change their behaviour if they could. Also, Sina Weibo has only 50 million active users, so just like the mentioned millionaires, it might not be a representative sample according to both number and demographics.
Feb 26, 2013 13:22 Report Abuse
Put face and a lack of free or logical thought together and it's a marketers' perfect storm. It is hard to work out how a person spends such a high proportion of their available income on a gadget or luxury car. Well you can even forget the luxury when speaking of cars. I know plenty who have purchased one even when they take far longer to drive to where they are going than the cheap and very convenient metro systems. Even when you get there you have "Buckleys" of getting a parking spot and as soon as you wash them they are filty again in an hour or two.
Feb 26, 2013 19:01 Report Abuse
A person who is materialistic is defined as one who is excessively concerned with physical comforts or the acquisition of material things rather than spiritual, intellectual, moral, or cultural values. Thus, it doesn't always mean that the rich is materialistic and the poor isn't. Often it is the person of lesser means that is concerned with material things, possibly branded goods that he or she can't afford, hence, the desire to acquire them, creating the market for fake Gucci or LV products and the like so he or she can have a showy display of one's means of life. Generally, we see most Chinese nationals are concerned with acquiring riches and flaunting "branded" goods. I had a friend who is a just a stall operator and she got herself a genuine Rolex watch and all for a showy display of her little "means". All day long I would hear her boastful talks of material stuff. I don't even understand why she needs to show how "rich" she is by buying that Rolex watch when she can't even afford a car and renting an apartment with her family. so being materialistic and rich are two different things, they are not the same.
Feb 27, 2013 18:35 Report Abuse
I agree with aliensteve. I just want to add that LV bags and Rolex watches are status SYMBOLS, symbols of economic success. I found that Chinese people always compare themselves and seem to be very "socially competitive". Nowadays, the Chinese middle and higher class seem to look down at those that are not so affluent. Many friends of mine say they feel "social pressure" to buy that, wear this, or own the other. The younger the people, the more materialistic. The lower the education, the more showy. Similar traits are trending in Western countries too (especially among young people), but to a less extent than China. I hope materialism will be just a temporary fad and wish that the society will soon rediscover the importance of traditional values.
Feb 28, 2013 05:08 Report Abuse
Chinese are definitely materialistic - the large majority. aliensteve makes good points above. The average person can't afford the high-end luxury goods, which is why there are so many people here who copy them and sell fakes. I'll bet 90% of the Luis Vitton bags you see women carrying in this country are fake. What does that say? -That they're frugal and buy fakes to save money? NO. They're materialistic and want people to THINK they own a real LV bag. I know a woman whose husband bought her an authentic LV purse for nearly 8k RMB. It was a nice purse, however it did not have any identifiable markings to show it was an LV purse. What did she do? She returned it and got one with LVLVLVLVLVLVLVLVL all over it. Too funny... Now people will assume it's fake. :-)
Feb 28, 2013 09:55 Report Abuse
I think they just have another way of thinking, most of the people who care about the luxury is just for social pressure, and they want to show off, but like one said, at homes, they live a rather traditional life and I think home is the real heart of the chinese society. Most of my chinese friends dont care about the money, they just like to hang out with friend, families and have a good time. I just think most foreigners dont get it, I mean, who are we to talk anyway, we live in the western world...the nest of materialism. I totally agree with the article.
Feb 28, 2013 15:29 Report Abuse
As a teacher of students from high school age to college, I am dismayed at more than half of them. Whenever we talk of goals and what people expect from life, the most common answer to "What will you do after graduation?" is "I'm going to be rich." "How" I ask. "By getting a good job in the field my parents told me to work in." I see so many talented young people who are studying a major they hate because they believe they will make more money this way. No understands that the more you like what you do, the more successful you are likely to be. Or that no gets rich working for someone. Money is a religion in China, one that people are willing to sacrifice their very lives for. In an informal survey over 3 years, I would guess that about 60% of my students think this way. It really is very sad.
Mar 01, 2013 15:04 Report Abuse
I would say materialism is just another quest for identity in a rapidly shifting landscape. Loss of identity is natural to the new electric environment. It is part of the "hidden ground" that drives all social change. Even the Chinese can't keep up with the effects of TV, which has completely and permanently changed all traditional cultures. TV has a decentralizing effect.......hence all the TV ads to promote "family values" and "social harmony" amidst baijiu and luxury cars. The internet is beginning to crack the TV image that the world has kept of itself for the last 50 years, hence all of the paranoia and multiple/schizophrenic points of view. Most of the world is just beginning to grasp what has already happened since the advent of the electric environment, including the Chinese. "Materialism" is just another "effect". Effects precede causes in this new world.
Mar 03, 2013 02:58 Report Abuse
I've been here 5 years and I can say that the Chinese are indeed very materialistic. Everything they do screams, getting rich and hope to afford all wealth that they can get. Take for example, the chinese new year greeting, gong xi fa cai! In my not so rich neigborhood, there's a luxury car parked out just beside the buidling, a maserati! People here would cramp on leaving in a small space just as long as when they go out they would perceived to be rich!
Mar 12, 2013 11:31 Report Abuse
Great article! You may want to read my new book, entitled Shiny Objects in the US, that will be published in Chinese this July (publisher FHEI). It addresses the impact our love of money and possessions has on our happiness. A very relevant topic as China continues to evolve into a full-fledged consumer society. I would love to hear your thougths on my book. Keep up the good work. Shiny Objects blog: http://blogs.baylor.edu/jim_roberts/
Jul 16, 2013 05:22 Report Abuse
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