China’s Ultra-Materialism Explained

The Chinese population is unabashedly materialistic. It is not just the one percent who splurges on the finer things in life; the craving for luxurious goods is a state-wide phenomenon. In 2010, a fight broke up in an Apple store in Beijing because customers were trying to hoard as many iPhones as possible. In 2012, a Chinese adolescent sold his kidney to shore up for an iPhone and an iPad. In 2013, a man, carrying multiple shopping bags, jumped to his death in a mall, having had enough of his girlfriend’s extravagant shopping spree. Unlike most anecdotes, these are actually quite informative. They accurately depict the virulent consumerist mindset in China.

A research conducted by the IDEO consultancy firm shows that many young migrant workers making no more than $830 a month are willing to spend the entirety of their monthly salary on an iPhone. Another research, conducted by the Bain consultancy, shows that China is the biggest buyer of expensive items in the world. In 2013, 29% of such products, which regularly feature Lancôme, Gucci, Audi, Rolex and Tiffany, were purchased by the Chinese. BDDO, an advertising agency, has recognized that affluent Chinese consumers are increasingly knowledgeable about the history and culture of foreign brands. The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) calculates that Chinese travelers, clocking at $102 billion per year in overseas expenditures, are the world’s biggest spenders.

There is no denying that these numbers are signs of increasing affluence, which is a direct product of China’s surging economy. However, China’s predilection for luxurious goods far exceeds its economic parameters. A month ago, China finally overtook the US in GDP. Now, China boasts the world’s top purchasing parity. Per capita, of course, the US is miles ahead of China. The US’ gaudy GDP per capita of $53 000 casts a gloomy reality over China’s $12 000. It is clear that the average Chinese citizen is markedly poorer than their American counterpart. The aforementioned statistics is therefore puzzling; the Chinese people, as opposed to the country as a whole, are not financially exceptional, but they have somehow managed to become the biggest buyers of expensive items and the biggest spenders in the world. From this vantage point, anecdotes of self-mutilating behaviors to acquire material goods display a particularly superficial streak among the Chinese.

One argument commonly cited to rebut China’s infatuation with the lavish lifestyle is the income chasm that separates the rich from the poor. Some claim that China’s consumerism is artificially inflated by the numerous “nouveaux riches” (土豪) sweeping across the country and beyond as China’s economy geared up in the twenty-first century. This argument, of course, ignores the fact that China’s middle class has been steadfastly burgeoning. China’s economic structure, unlike what some may believe, is like a pyramid. In 2012, 70.5% of the Chinese population still combated poverty, 28.5% comfortably enjoyed a middle class income, and only 1% bathed in luxury. While it is true that the top rung of the Chinese population possesses a disproportionate amount of wealth, there are simply not that many rich people, at least much less than we think. Strictly speaking in terms of millionaires, China boasted 2 378 000 in 2013, which is good enough for second place. Evidently, the US had many more: 7 135 000. For a country that is four times less populous, it has more than twice the number of millionaires. Yet, the crown of profligate expenses falls on the Chinese. In China, it is difficult to imagine that all these brand names are solely monopolized by the truly affluent. It is extremely likely, if not certain, that China’s middle class has a hand in this “rush for brands.” An IPSOS study conducted in 2013 reveals that the Chinese mentality is particularly materialistic. Materialism, as defined by success measured by things that one owns, scored highest in China. Indeed, 71% of Chinese respondents agreed that they gauged one’s success by the things they owned. Respondents from Western countries, who receive a much more generous income, are significantly less materialistic. Germans scored 27%, Americans scored 21%, and the British tails the study with only 16%. Taken all together, it is hard to refute that the Chinese are in love with their Bordeaux wines, their Hermes handbags and their Picasso paintings.

The evidence begs the following question: why is China so damn materialistic? Some have attempted to find an answer in China’s history. They contend that materialism is endemic in the Chinese culture. China has historically dominated the world as a fulcrum of economic prosperity. Tang and Song China were particularly wealthy, far eclipsing the riches of its neighbors and Western kingdoms. Such wealth, they argue, must be necessarily supported by an entrepreneurial people prioritizing commercial interests. As they had waddled in prosperity, it was merely natural that a taste for the most refined material goods develop among the Chinese people.

I disagree with this argument. Prosperity is cyclical. It is far-fetched to claim that the fondness for luxury of our ancestors has carried on to this day. One needs to look no further than the Communist era to invalidate this argument. During Mao Zedong’s heydays, the Chinese willingly forwent material comfort. What little wealth they possessed was shared among the community. Materialism as a concept was simply non-existent in China. Conversely, as China was roiled in poverty, the US overtook Great Britain to become the world’s top economic force. With their rise to dominance came a wave of consumption. Pepsi and Coca Cola, Ford, and Hollywood all took America and the world by storm. By 1960, 75% of American families owned a car and 87% owned a television. Evidently, materialism is correlated with the cyclical pulse of economic prosperity. It vanishes in times of poverty, and rears its head in times of affluence.

Having dismantled this argument, we’re still not close to solving this puzzle. If materialism manifests itself in prosperity, then why are the richest countries in the world less materialistic than China? Which country, China notwithstanding, are the most materialistic in the world? According to the same IPSOS study, the second-most materialistic country is India, followed by Turkey, Brazil and finally South Korea rounding out the top five. The commonality that these five countries share is clear; all of them are rapidly developing countries, three of which form the infamous BRICS. Thus, the pattern seems to indicate that neither obscenely rich nor poor countries are particularly interested in material goods. It is the countries that are rich enough, but that still suffer an insatiable hunger for more, that are obsessed with the culture of consumption. This realization is confirmed by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Humans are primordially concerned with physiological and safety needs, but these concerns are of little import to emerging economies like China. People who can satisfy their basest needs are then preoccupied with belonging and esteem needs. Materialism and the quest for luxury items fit these criteria perfectly. Finally, having fulfilled all these requirements, humans will be seeking self-actualization. Perhaps the most developed countries, as expressed by their general disinterest to materialism, have reached this stage. They understand that success cannot be solely denoted by one’s possessions, but by morality, creativity and mental enlightenment.

Materialism is one thing. But why are the Chinese so intent on procuring high-end, expensive novelty items? Where does this urge to appropriate the top brand names come from? The Chinese have become extremely fickle in their consumption. A Ford no longer cuts it; it has to be a BMW. Louis Vuitton is not good enough anymore; Chanel is the new queen in town. China has effectively transcended the basic tenets of materialism. It is now ultra-materialistic.

I believe that this characteristic stems from the Chinese people’s identity crisis.

From 1839 to 1949, China underwent what is colloquially known as the Century of Humiliation (百年国耻). During these years, China was soundly defeated by Westerners in the First and Second Opium Wars. Even a tributary state, Japan, proved to be militarily and technologically superior to China as demonstrated by the results of the First Sino-Japanese War. Long story short, China lost all of its military disputes and had to offer trade and territorial concessions to sue for peace. In a mere hundred years, the prestige and wealth that China meticulously accumulated throughout millennia of history were stolen. Like a turkey, China’s mythical territory was carved up by greedy, imperialistic foreign powers. This shameful period fostered a deep but justified resentment towards the West (and Japan) in the Chinese population. Enter Mao: his valiant stand against Japan during the Second World War and his ousting of the American-backed Guomindang not only staved off further territorial encroachment, but showed to the world that the Chinese are not to be trifled with. With displays of brute force capable of overwhelming even the West (e.g. Korea and Vietnam Wars), Mao partially restored China’s prestige on the global stage. Thanks to Mao, China was no longer regarded as the “sick man of Asia”. The Chinese have “stood up.” But wealth was something that Mao could not promise to China. It was Deng Xiaoping, who, through his Open Door Policy in 1978, revealed the material prosperity of the West and teased the Chinese population about a future of abundance. However, exposed to decades of anti-Western rhetoric under Mao, the Chinese people have since then nurtured a bitter rivalry against the West. The new window to the world, thus, added a uneasy and conflicting feeling to the mix: want.

Presently, the Chinese population is trying to make sense of their inner struggle between exclusion and inclusion. On one hand, they vehemently reject the West, denigrating their imperialistic mores and diplomatic arrogance, and emphasize the virtues of the Chinese culture. They have not forgotten the subjugation suffered under Western powers. On the other hand, they desperately want to be held to the same esteem that Westerners hold among themselves. They believe that, under his pearly white smile, the white man still harbors contempt towards the Chinese. But they grudgingly understand that, despite China’s economic resurgence, the road to greatness lies overseas — not in the Chinese heartlands. The Chinese population is still fighting a deep sense of insecurity. Their acrimonious displays of nationalism are the anodyne to their fragile self-esteem. There is a distinct discourse of “we” vs. “them” in the Chinese population, but it is ironic that they desire nothing more than to be acknowledged by “them.” If the Chinese refuses to be with the West, but wants to live like the West, then what is there to do? Clearly, the answer is to surpass the West.

Ultra-materialism, then, is no more than a manifestation of this pressing desire couched in the realm of consumption. Socially, the same mentality is perceptible. Which Chinese parent has not told their kid to outdo the foreigners (老外) at school? When has the Chinese not been grandiose towards the foreigners at their own expense? The 2008 Olympic Games speak volume about China’s countenance towards the West. Willing to lose an arm and a leg to host the most expensive opening ceremony of all time, China attempted to show the West that it has caught up — that it is now deserving of greater respect. This example is eerily familiar to the Chinese kid selling a kidney to buy an iPhone. Both were willing to incur stratospheric costs to show that they are, in effect, the best. The same pattern can be discerned politically. The Chinese government regularly challenges the West, particularly the US, on a slew of political issues including trade, maritime disputes, human rights and environmental regulations. Militarily, China is modernizing its equipment with the express intent to prepare against a potential confrontation with the US. Its procurement of anti-carrier missiles to deny US maritime superiority in the Taiwan Strait, cyber-warfare technology to jam US communication and mobile second-strike nuclear capabilities to threaten American cities confirm that not only is China unafraid to defy the American war machine, but intends to triumph against it. In short, rivalry against the West, and more importantly the desire to upstage it at all costs, spans across almost all areas of competition.

Because China’s ultra-materialism is fundamentally based on a mentality of dogged competition against the West, it is reasonable that it will taper off when China surpasses its nemesis. Eclipsing the US, especially in terms of quality of life, will affirm China’s complete triumph over the West. Particularly superficial Chinese will still crave luxurious brand names, to be sure, but this pressure will certainly dissipate among the middle class. When China becomes number one, it will have little to be envious of. It will have reached the apex of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. As a population, there will be no more acquisition of expensive novelties to compensate for the social perception of inferiority. Not only is materialism bound to decrease, but the value of foreign brand names is likely to take a hit as well. Just like how the US ravenously consumes Americana, China and its population will appreciate indigenous brands. It is a ridiculous notion that a Chinese-made bag is of inferior quality than a French-made bag. If China can send rockets to space and submarines to the depth of oceans, then why can it not craft a piece of leather that humanity learnt millennia ago? It is evident that a shared construct of prestige is dictating the Chinese consumerist mindset. It is the opinion of this author that prestige can only be attained by China’s full rejuvenation to its golden age. When China becomes a global hegemon, what esteem will it hold for a comparatively small and weak country like France? But until then, we’re likely to throw our hard-earned money at designer shoes and bags, premium cars, technology en vogue and Western jewelry, much to the grief of our self-actualized brethren.