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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"traditional Chinese values, such as ensuring Grandpa is well looked after and the parents are getting their fair share of filial piety." That has a lot more to do with the CCP and government not having the infrastructure to support a rapidly ageing population than really wanted to bring back family values. They just want to dump the old people on their kids so Chinese people don't start thinking about how the government doesn't really provide any support for retired people despite all those taxes and social welfare contributions they paid... "Socialism" at its finest. On a side note, Confusionism is a outdated. It's completely based on a system of "respect and bow to your elder/superior" rather than respecting people based on their accomplishments/skills/talent/etc. To put it simply, Confusionism says: Respect someone because he/she is older than you or has a better job than you, even if they are dumb as bricks or total douchebags."
Aug 15, 2016 14:28 Report Abuse
The writer would benefit from researching the importance of "face" and how big a part jeolousy plays in daily life in China. What were the kinds of people being tortured and killed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76)? Why? How were they tortured before being killed? How? Known as the worst genocide of the 20th century there were no concentration camps (rounding up of people for efficient execution), so who killed those 30 million (official figure) people in that ten years?
Aug 11, 2016 02:52 Report Abuse
Jealousy is indeed very strong in daily life here. Everyday, everywhere I can feel people throwing me stares of anger because I'm a handsome tall and muscular laowai with a good professional situation and a tall smart hot looking wife. I don't really care what other people think or have, I don't compare myself to others, but the Chinese do so all the time, it truly seems to be culturally systemic to compare themselves and to try and put other people down in ridiculous ways to raise themselves up, even when those other people are just minding their own business and ask for nothing. As for me, I care about myself and my wife, other people be damned, good on them for being successful but I don't really care, just leave me alone and go on your way.
Aug 12, 2016 01:04 Report Abuse
RandomGuy, I understand you perfectly (first hand experience). There are three kinds of people communists hate, a). the rich, b). the educated, c). the ethical, or spiritual, the ones with a conscience. Karl Marx taught them because they were exploited by all three (the ethical ones were merely hypocrites) types they were free to use violence, cunningness, deceit to the hilt to kill these oppressors. "Save the last rope to hang the capitalists (who manufacture those ropes through us laborers, exploiting us in the process making themselves rich)", Marx said that. He really meant it. This is the same kind of rationale terrorists use, an excuse to kill and loot by putting the blame on business owners, scholars, spiritualists.....etc. You may ask, "but isn't it true they themselves want all the nice things, cars, houses, iPads, iPhones, i, i, i, ....., and live like the people they are jeolous of and hate? They are hating their future-selves!!!" Exactly. This is why mainlanders are schizophrenic as a group. You may notice another character trait of mainlanders is "You want me do this? Don't blink". They do the exact opposite. This is not some teenage rebellous mentality but a desire to inflict maximum unhappiness on those they are jeolous of, namely the haves. They derive happiness (their version of course) this way. Sadistic and schzophrenic. A few weeks ago I was chatting with a guy and when I shared the above with him he said quietly, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (the novel) was and still is banned iin China". Very telling, isn't it? [edited: Did you know Alice's Adventure in Wonderland was also banned in China? To see why check this out. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_censorship_in_China ]
Aug 12, 2016 09:23 Report Abuse
Many Local Chinese are jeolous of foreigners not only on looks, but also because, local Chinese believe, "white foreigners" are wealthy. They believe our salary is 2-5x more than theirs. And yet, they believe, they work much more (hours) and still don't earn as much.
Aug 12, 2016 15:30 Report Abuse
True but much worse in China because other countries were not stripped of everything but materialism, the Chinese have no other ways to compare themselves beside materialism. Where a rich Indian may use his money to build a Buddhist temple in order to show everyone how high he is compared to them, the Chinese can't do so as they are a faithless people, and flaunting personal wealth in the face of others seems to be the only way they know to raise themselves up.
Aug 12, 2016 01:10 Report Abuse
there are exceptions to the rule here but generally Chinese people are amongst the most materialistic, shallow minded people I have ever met. the seemingly empty luxury stores here are not renting shop space in high end malls out of some kind of philanthropy, they are making money, either by in store sales or by people using these stores as shop windows and buying abroad. You have to look at the global picture not just the local one. When they stop making enough money they will be gone. Fakes copies of everything abound here simply because people want to be seen as richer, hence better in their eyes, than the next pleb down. Nearly everyone here worships money, from the guy at the top funneling money out of the country to the Cayman islands to the pathetic little wannabes buying fake crap just to look richer than they are. Vicki87 there is nothing wrong with buying what you can afford but rubbing everyone else's nose it it just because they cannot afford just shows how insecure and immature that person really is. You were on here a while ago bragging about the fakes you had bought, for their wonderful design, not realising how many people were laughing at you. In the western countries most people with real wealth would never dream of showing off or telling people how much they have like the Chinese do. Money does not buy class, and what we have in China are a lot of rich peasants with a peasants mentality, followed by the wannabes who want to be the next rich peasant. I have rich friends and some really poor ones and I have told them that even if they lived in a cardboard box on the street they would still be my friend because of who they are. I do not give a sh** about what they have or do not have. When most Chinese can adopt this way of thinking there will be some hope for them, until then most of them will still behave like a pig with lipstick.
Aug 08, 2016 11:01 Report Abuse
Hong Kong people have no issue with most mainlanders, however they have issues with the nongmings that come to piss and shit everywhere while buying all the milk powder, and with the tuhao that think higher pricetag equals more class. And quite frankly, the rest of the world including China itself, feels the same about that minority of obnoxious mainland peasants that make the rest of their country look bad.
Aug 15, 2016 14:39 Report Abuse
Agreed. I just dislike the hatred attitude of some people criticizing others to buy luxury things. They didn't steal money. They either work to make good money, or run a sucessful business or their rich parents gave to them or their husbands gave to them. Absolutely nothing wrong with spending on something they can afford, even those are luxury goods. The person who posts this article is just dumb. The hatred attitude is just annoying and childish. Grow up! I am not rich, but I was going out with some rich friends. I never pointed finger to them.
Aug 16, 2016 19:40 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
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
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