When walking the streets of Shanghai, China's most globalized and international city, one cannot help but notice the number of opportunities to shop. China is, as NYU Shanghai professor Dan Guttman put it when addressing our Contemporary China course in the fall of 2011, “the land of one billion-plus customers.” China is home to endless supermalls, luxury boutiques, street vendors, chain stores, fabric markets, and fakes markets, many of which have sprung up within the past five years.
Special economic zones and the "head of the dragon"
In 1984, the People’s Republic of China opened up fourteen coastal cities to overseas investment, with Shanghai becoming the “head of the dragon” as one of China’s leading special economic zones. This has led to the emergence of a market economy in Shanghai; the ever-growing population of middle-class Chinese is ever more eager to consume. Due to both supply and demand and the desire to develop and compete with other leading American and European cities, Shanghai has responded to growing paychecks and the new middle-class dream by providing an abundance of consumer opportunities, from the dirt-cheap to the extravagant, with a large proportion focused on fashion and clothing.
Buying the latest trendy coat is now just as quick and easy as ordering a burger from McDonald’s. Walking down the street one notices not only the excessive number of shops and shoppers, but also the trendy–and occasionally grandiose–outfits of many Shanghainese themselves. In a country with a tradition of valuing “face,” it is no wonder that the Chinese have taken up clothes-shopping with such vigor. The traditional emphasis on face fuels the habit of consumerism: how one dresses is how one presents oneself.
However, from the design table to the factory floor to the moment a garment is purchased and worn, many complex forces are at work. What are these forces and what makes this hyper-inflated industry possible? Are there fine lines denoting “Chinese” and “Western” characteristics and influences, and if so, where are they drawn? What does this industry show us and what are its lasting effects?
The 2006 Hong Kong film The Shopaholics (最爱女人购物狂) tells the story of woman with a psychological problem. She can't resist her urge to shop despite being severely in debt and unemployed. Though it may seem at first that her addiction is a personality flaw, living in Shanghai has made it clear to me how the irresistible intersection of tantalizing shops, endless advertisements, and Chinese culture can make becoming a shopaholic all to easy. In his Atlantic magazine essay Postcards From Tomorrow Square, journalist James Fallows poses a question that is at the root of the shopping experience: What is the Chinese dream? He writes:
The American dream covers something so elemental in human ambition that people from around the world think it applies to them. The Chinese dream reflects the unprecedented opportunities now open to at least some of this country’s 1.3 billion people … [for whom] material improvement [is] a proxy for the meaning of life. Any generalization this broad obviously will be wrong about many individuals. But what, if anything, tomorrow’s successful Chinese want beyond a bigger house and better car seems both important and impossible to know.
Thus material gain and self-improvement is the aspiration that most Chinese work towards, driving parents to invest more and more in their children’s education, believing in a direct correlation between education and future salary.
China's growing middle class keeps on growing
Former US consul general in Shanghai, Kenneth Jarrett addressed the growth of the middle class in his lecture “Current Issues in China: Economy, Leadership, US-China Relations,” stressing that in urban areas, the number of poor, with annual incomes less than 3,200 USD has been shrinking during the past 30 years while the number of upper middle-class with disposable incomes is increasing. Jarrett revealed that by 2025, China might have over 350 million urban households with annual disposable incomes above 3,200 USD, an outlook that underscores his point that “China’s real consumption potential has yet to be unleashed.” Many statistics indicate that China’s economy will only continue to grow, moving from an export-based economy to a consumption-oriented one. Such growth would have world-changing consequences as China changes to deal with the shift in demand.
American style consumerism in China, but cheaper?
Fallows also speculates on where China’s economy is headed, taking note of the American model as a possible template: deregulation, expanding free trade, embracing Wal-Mart and other chains.
Such a high-quantity low-cost model is at the heart of the Chinese clothing industry, and luxury branding aside, this model also usually means low quality. However because China’s economy is based on manufacturing items, the proximity between factories and urban cities makes the quality of goods extremely diverse. For example, one can purchase an imitation Prada purse for 100 RMB at a fake market, while a migrant worker who works in the factory illegally sells the real version, priced in America at 800 USD, on the street.
The diversity of the shopping experience illustrates the hyper-inflated nature of the industry’s selection. In general, however, a high quantity of low-quality items drives consumption, as Chinese are now able to afford more because items cost less. In Lixin Fan's 2009 film Last Train Home, a pair of mother-daughter migrant factory workers wear winter coats with real fur on their hoods. A luxury item in the West, fur, can be purchased in China for a mere eight USD.
This kind of manufacturing is also driven by the world fashion industry and the trends that it triggers: the creation of disposable fast fashion. Chain retail stores use cheap low-quality materials to reproduce designer items; because trends have extremely short life spans, these stores also have extremely high product turnover. This is possible because of the low cost of labor, often in poor conditions, and material, often energy-wasteful cotton or non-biodegradable synthetics.
Such low-quality goods are detrimental to the environment, not only because of pollution caused by manufacturing but also because the clothes are so cheap and replaceable that no one reuses, repairs, sells, or hands them down—contributing to China’s already-huge problem of excess waste. And with no intellectual property laws and no way of enforcing them if there were any, China will only continue to produce these excessive quantities.