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Chinese consumers

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Friday, Oct 15, 2010

I have an essay going up on Monday at the newly revamped Generation Bubble about Chinese consumers. Western business pundits and analysts never tire of complaining that Chinese consumerism is not keeping up with the nation’s economic growth, and that this is why global imbalances have gotten so large and the world teeters on the edge of “currency war.” The impression this can give is that consumers in China are still all dirt-poor, skulking about in Mao uniforms and surviving on subsistence rations, but that isn’t so. The Chinese consumer class is steadily growing, and it’s apparently ultra brand-conscious. Shopping malls and department stores are growing and spreading too, along with the means to market them.


Still, I argue in the essay that there is an ideological lag; China’s consumers are still early on the learning curve of becoming narcissistic and identity-oriented—they still fuss about things like “usefulness”. Obviously they all need to read Baudrillard and realize that the whole concept is a fiction (a “useful” one?). I wonder also to what degree forced individualism can serve as a mode of social control there as it does here in the U.S. China’s Communist Party seems to prefer the wage suppression and Confucian homilies approach.


But on that note, I enjoyed this question from this Council on Foreign Relations interview with J.C. de Swaan of Princeton:


What are the implications for U.S. companies operating in China of the recent uptick in riots by Chinese workers?


I love the use of the word uptick in that context, as if a certain amount of rioting is to be generally expected, and it merely fluctuates like the Baltic Dry Index or something and should be dealt with like any other economic indicator. The answer to the question is interesting too—de Swaan explains that the government has started to take a hands off approach when workers riot at foreign-owned factories. He also suggests it indicates the “end of surplus labor in China” and that factories will begin shifting to Bangladesh and other places where you can still drive a hard bargain with desperate laborers. It may be that China is in a revolutionary sweet spot of sorts, with workers having moved beyond a resignation to ruthless exploitation but not yet fully adapted to consumerism to be anesthetized by it. You can see why the government is worried.

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