Sharply observed account of what happens, both good and bad, when a group of more than a billion people start seriously shopping.
While China is often thought of as a major producer of goods, it is as a consumer, writes Gerth (Modern Chinese History/Oxford Univ.; China Made: Consumer Culture and the Creation of the Nation, 2003), that the Chinese population is transforming itself and the world. Deliberate government policies aimed at reducing the country’s overreliance on exports have transformed China from a country of scarcity and frugality to one in which the consumer ethos rules. “Chinese have already become the world’s largest consumers of everything from mobile phones to beer,” writes the author, and it is the largest market in the world for automobiles and is becoming one of the world’s largest manufacturers of cars. As at least part of the population reaches middle-class status, they are afforded easy access to a variety of quality goods that rival anything available in Japan or the United States. The Chinese have also learned that their status and identity are often tied to their possessions. Gerth makes clear there are many downsides to the new Chinese consumer culture, from the massive manufacture of counterfeit goods to the creation of extreme markets in such things as babies, sex slaves, human organs and endangered species. Perhaps most serious is pollution. Each year in China, millions of trees are cut down in order to produce tens of billions of disposable chopsticks, thus creating millions of tons of waste and also adding greatly to the problem of desertification through deforestation. The author emphasizes, however, that many consumer-driven environmental problems in China are ones of scale rather than kind. These problems are not unique to China, but exacerbated by the sheer size of the population. The rest of the world can learn much as China attempts to solve the problem of “how to enjoy modern consumer lifestyles without exacerbating their many downsides.”
Nuanced, balanced and accessible—essential reading for anyone trying to make sense of China today.