Most observers agree that the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing marks the official launch of ‘Brand China’ in the international marketplace. With the Olympic ceremonies about to begin, it’s a good time to revisit the book by MIT Chinese cultural scholar Jing Wang, published at the beginning of this year by Harvard University Press. Written before the country’s recent travails with earthquakes and subsequent regional flooding and the controversy over Tibetan autonomy, Brand New China provides a glimpse into the complex character of contemporary Chinese culture as it hooks up with global consumerism.
Like the still perplexing idea of the world’s largest actually existing communist state being the darling cash cow of transnational capital, the book is at times a jarring mix of marketing primer, cultural critique, and international policy analysis. The narrative flow isn’t helped by the author’s intermittent digressions into academic polemic, filtered through English-as-a-second-language prose. But the book offers a number of interesting insights for those willing to go along for the ride.
For marketing types, Wang provides practical guidance based on primary field research as to where global brand managers have gone wrong in their attempts to negotiate China’s domestic marketplace. These anecdotes aren’t quite as amusing as the apocryphal story that ‘Coca-Cola’ means ‘bite the wax tadpole’ in Chinese. But they do point out the need to think locally as well as act that way.
For example, Chinese consumer psychology is far more family-oriented at this point than the individualistic model of modern Western experience. And, as opposed to conventional wisdom on fast-moving consumer goods, where parent companies are advised to stay in the background and offer similar products under different brand names (how many people know or care, for instance, that Proctor and Gamble makes Cheer, Ivory, and Tide laundry detergents?), Chinese buyers gain greater confidence in their purchasing decisions by seeing a clear relationship of even the most mundane product to a larger corporate umbrella identity, perhaps as a result of their collectivist heritage.
For those interested in culture, Wang chronicles, among other things, the rise of the Chinese ‘bobo’ (the so-called bourgeois bohemians made famous by David Brooks a few years back). It’s a relatively low-budget affair by Western standards given that annual per capita income in China is still below US$2500 as of 2007, although income in urban areas is much higher and the average Chinese family spends a fraction on housing and other basics subsidized by the government when compared to those living in more advanced countries.
Getting and spending is actually a two-tiered process in China with parents typically sacrificing their own material comfort so that their children can engage in conspicuous consumption, which in China is an extension of the concern for ‘face’ relations, i.e., outward appearances and honorifics. The result is what Wang terms ‘safe cool’ among China’s youthful consumers. A Mohawk, a fake-jewel-encrusted cell phone, and lunch at Mickey D’s provide major social cachet among this younger set. It’s also a much less dangerous way to declare self-identity than trying to stare down a Red Army tank in Tiananmen Square.
On the producer side, Wang counsels the managerial class of China’s new industrial conglomerates to take a page from the round eyes’ executive playbook and lose the traditional omnipotent authoritarianism, based on the millennia-old Confucian leadership paradigm filtered by way of Chairman Mao, and develop a more consensus-oriented approach instead. Not that she realistically sees much hope of that.
Indeed, one of the more interesting facts Wang takes note of is that the CEOs of China’s two largest corporations, the consumer appliance manufacturer Haier and the computer company Lenovo (maker of the Think Pad PC that used to be offered by IBM), are former “sent down” intellectuals who honed their management skills working in the countryside as part of the infamous Cultural Revolution. Neither has renounced the Chinese Communist Party, the majority shareholder in both executives’ companies.
This leads to what is perhaps Wang’s most compelling observation, made early on and repeated at several points throughout the book. Wang’s interpretation of the evidence she’s gathered is that the libertarian line about free markets equaling free minds, i.e., of the capitalist system as the quintessential mechanism of democracy, is just that, a line. According to Wang, an important lesson to be taken from her study of contemporary Chinese consumer society is that there is no necessary connection between capitalist economics and democratic politics. The business climate is just peachy under one of the world’s most repressive regimes, thank you very much.
And in fact, there’s evidence that actually points in the other direction. The New York Times recently reported a story under the headline
‘Olympic Sponsors to Benefit Under a Tougher Stance in China’ detailing steps the Communist government is taking to make sure that no unauthorized marketing occurs during the 2008 games in Beijing. Top-level sponsors, such as the red-blooded Americans at The Coca-Cola Company quoted in the article, are extremely pleased at the prospects for absolute control of audience mindshare. What was it that Orwell said at the end of Animal Farm? Oh yeah—‘The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.’ Welcome to the Coke side of life, Chinese style.