Consumerist China: Is it sustainable?

Imagine you're taking a walk down Nanjing road in Shanghai. Start at People's square. This expansive parade ground used to be a horse racing track until the communist party outlawed racing and gambling in 1949 and flattened it for the glory of the new China. Now it's filled with the Mao-jacket clad, elderly survivors of the cultural revolution, who’ve finally reclaimed the space for leisure. They cheerfully sit playing chess and dancing to 1950s classics scratchily playing from an old portable cassette player, impervious to people walking past.

Dodge the gridlock of new cars as you're crossing the recently constructed six-lane Tibet Rd onto Nanjing road proper. Quite suddenly, thousands of black haired people bustle around you humming like bees in this hive of neon stimulation. Families gaze in wonder at a blue illuminated aquarium window display in a department store. A giant screen blares advertisements 20 metres above your head. Young people in brightly coloured outfits sit in Starbucks, laughing over iced coffee and comparing bargains.

If you crane your neck a little, you can gaze up over the heads of old colonial hotels to see a skyline of space-aged sky scrapers that all sprouted from the dirt simultaneously during the 90s – a time when one quarter of all the worlds cranes were remaking Shanghai. As you promenade down what has become, in only three decades, the longest shopping strip in the world – people's square – the communist era that it represents grows ever more distant behind you. 

When you finally reach the harbour you'll be greeted by a sombre-looking, large bronze Mao, whose vantage point offers him a view straight down Nanjing road. He can see every American and European designer-brand store as it opens its doors for business. He stands there, essentially ignored and no doubt in silent bronze distress, as he watches his world change around him.

China’s transition from a centrally controlled command economy to a market-led economy has got to be one of the most dramatic stories of the 20th century – and certainly one with the most far-reaching consequences. Since Deng Xioping's market reforms of the 1970s, economic growth has lifted the average per capita income significantly, and dragged the poverty rate down from 85 per cent in 1981 to 16 per cent in 2005, as well as widening the rift between rich and poor.

China’s population has grown from 937,267,000 in 1976 – the year Mao died – to now include more than 1.27 billion mostly urban dwellers. China has been variously described as the world’s fastest growing economy, the world’s hero during the GFC, the next ‘Great Power,’ and the biggest new market for, well, pretty much everything.

But China’s transformation extends beyond the jargon of economists and political scientists. Lives there are different. Values are changing. Power relationships have shifted. Interest in the Communist Party is waning, as it’s state-sponsored successor, the market, takes the limelight. Consumerism is the new ‘ism’ in this world.

It took less than three decades for the world’s biggest consumer society to be born. Poverty is still widespread, China’s consumer spending is still half that of the US, and savings rates may be approximately 30 times that of its quick-and-easy credit-saturated American market, but consumer spending in China now exceeds that in Japan and it’s getting close to European levels. And it’s the speed of this transition that is the most astounding.

In 1993, there were 37,000 private cars in China. Today there are 35 million. China’s newly established urban majority eat twice as many animal products as they did in the 1980s. In 1990, there were 20,000 cell phones in China. By 1995, that number had grown to 3.4 million. The beauty industry – considered bourgeois under Mao – has grown from sales of $24 million in 1982 to sales of over $168 billion in 2009. And the figures go on, but as figures tend to do, they fail to convey the extent of cultural change that’s accompanied this boom in Chinese consumption.

Karl Gerth, author of As China Goes, So Goes the World, reminds us that "consumerism implies more than the increased purchasing of more goods. It refers as well to the orientation of social life around consumer products and services, to the entrenchment of consumerism into the everyday life of a society." This is a story of millions of people gradually beginning to socialise around, to identify with, and express themselves through increasingly more resource-intensive consumer goods. Fifty years ago, a bicycle was a status symbol, now it’s a motorbike.

At the forefront of this cultural shift are the urban mall-lurking young. A 2009 McKinsey report entitled "The Coming of Age: China’s new class of wealthy consumers" – concluded that "on average, wealthy consumers in China are 20 years younger than those in the US and Japan.” As one blogger and resident of Shanghai, John O'Breza, puts it: "This generation of Chinese citizens has no memory of life before the reforms of Deng Xiaoping. There is no nostalgia for the songs and stories of red culture. This is the generation of Baidu and Taobao, of iPhones and designer sneakers. They don't want the past; they want the future."

Deborah S. Davis, author of The Consumer Revolution in China explains why. She points to consumerism as a liberating experience for many Chinese. She makes the point that "this rapid commercialisation of consumption… broke the monopolies that had previously cast urban consumers in the role of supplicant to the State.”

But it’s also a story of post-Tiananmen Square political apathy, and the success of advertising giants in a virgin market. Put more simply to me by Wei, a frustrated young Shanghainese woman: “My parents talk about the Party, but I don’t care. Everyone knows the Party lies. People don’t care about politics anymore. What’s the point? You can’t change anything. People just buy stuff instead.”

Much of the talk about all of this "buying stuff" that’s going on in China is usually couched in business terms. Untapped markets. Higher revenue. The "youth dollar." It all sounds great if you’ve got stuff to sell or an economy to grow. The overall conclusion shared by Chinese and western politicians alike is that consumerism in China is essential for international economic stability and for China’s growth.

The Chinese government has actively encouraged consumerism by such means as opening up credit channels and relaxing financial regulations, lowering interest rates to make savings less rewarding, reinstating public health care to free up ‘rainy day’ savings and implementing ‘Golden Weeks’ public holidays to boost domestic tourism.

In 2008, US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner publicly praised China’s government for recognising that “sustainable growth will require a substantial shift from external to domestic demand, from investment and export-led growth, to growth led by consumption." Ok, but taking off the economist goggles for a minute, what does it actually mean to have an increasingly consumerist society of 1.27 billion people in a world of finite resources?

Considering that we, as a species, are already consuming 1.5 earth’s-worth of resources with the generous help of only one billion western-level consumers across the developed world, adding another billion to the mix does not bode well. Despite the fact that China’s average per capita biological footprint (2.2 global HA) is still dwarfed by that of the US (8 global HA) per person, Australia (6.84 global HA) and other western nations, it’s on a sharp rise.

Fast-growing Chinese industries consistently dodge environmental regulation, and central government appears unable, in many circumstances, to keep polluting businesses in line. Every year, factories discharge some 36 billion tonnes of untreated wastewater into the surrounding landscape. In absolute terms, China is already the third-largest contributor to global pollution, and is in the running for number one by 2050.

The reality is, more consumption means more of all that bad stuff too: more waste and more packaging to process; more of pretty much every finite resource the world has to offer, from the oil required to make plastic, to the coal used to power factories, iron ore, to teak and other scarce wood materials, and all the minerals required for a computerised life. Increased consumption of meat and dairy requires more land and water use than a mostly vegetarian diet, and results in more carbon emissions. On top of this, traditional medicine in China has generated the biggest market in the world for trade in the bits and pieces of endangered species.

It doesn’t take an environmental science PhD to figure out that, from an ecological or even a long-term economic point of view (if you take the still shocking and controversial perspective that future economic growth will be impossible without resources), China’s shift to American-style consumerism requires a whole lot more, now, of what we might want to consider saving for the future. 

Of course, there are many in China still living in poverty who stand to benefit from further economic growth. But there are those who would argue that the time for the old "economy versus environment" approach to development has well and truly passed; who would point out that ecological damage is already estimated to cost China approximately 14 per cent of its annual GDP.

This new bunch of environmentalist suits argue that environmental sustainability and economic development are inseparable. I met some of this crowd in Shanghai, in September this year. This particular group of Chinese greenies were the staff of JUCCCE, the Shanghai-based non profit otherwise known as the slightly more pronounceable Joint US China Collaboration on Clean Energy.

Chaired and co-founded by Time magazine’s hero of the environment in 2008, 2010 Hilary Laureate for climate change leadership and local eco mover and shaker, Peggy Liu, JUCCCE  launched in 2010 the "China Dream" project. It’s a three-year project that plays on the concept of a national dream. Like the "American Dream," the idea is to develop a lifestyle vision for China’s future.

Unlike the American Dream, though, JUCCCE is trying to make the China Dream a green one. The project experiments with different ways to steer consumer habits and local policy in China away from their current US-style trajectory into the realm of the sustainable. Aware of the need to reach the next generation of consumers, they’re targeting the urban young in particular. It’s a mammoth task.

According to a joint study conducted by the British Council and China Youth Daily newspaper completed in April this year, getting young Chinese to act on their green convictions in the shopping mall will not be easy. The "National Survey on Sustainable Consumption among Chinese Young People" interviewed almost 10,000 young people from all income levels around China. According to the study, approximately 80 per cent of young people are concerned about climate change and related natural disasters, and most young people are aware of urban air pollution. However, two thirds indicated that they would like to buy a car and 77 per cent of participants indicated that they would be unlikely to buy energy-saving products.

One young American working in Shanghai in the field of ethical consumerism, who asked not to be named, put it to me somewhat more succinctly: “People in China don’t give a shit," about conscientious buying. "You know how some charities in the US work in cooperation with companies to sell products where one cent from every purchase will go to the charity? They don’t do that here, because people don’t buy it.” 

But the China Dream project team are more optimistic. Based around the principals of choice architecture described in the book Nudge, by Thaler and Sunstein, the project assumes that sustainable consumer choices need ‘nudges’ in the right direction, such as the introduction of penalties and rewards; think fees for plastic bags at supermarkets, for example. Blending policy advice for mayors (who are actually powerful political figures in Chinese politics) with popular culture messaging, in cooperation with what they describe as "cultural influencers" (advertising agencies, magazines and celebrities), the project tries to emphasise the consumption of services rather than goods and to make sustainable consumer choices sexy more generally.

I spoke to Elizabeth, one of the team members and a Chinese-American fourth-year Environmental Economics & Policy major from UC Berkeley. I asked her about the project, what they’re doing, and what she feels their chances are of affecting any change.

“China is still in a unique and short window in history where Chinese tastes are rapidly changing”, she said. “The biggest challenge, thus far, is to respect Chinese culture and its values of health and family, and to do it in a way that is tangible for the average Chinese citizen. This is definitely achievable; just like the international brands who have successfully used advertising to showcase the American or Euro lifestyles.”

I asked her what she hopes the China Dream project will look like in two years. “In two years,” she replied “I hope that we will start to see advertisements that incorporate 'China Dream' ideals to appear in the mega cities, and that the idea placement of 'China Dream' will make its way into the TV dramas, commercials, viral internet shorts, and movies. Ideally, we will begin to see a paradigm shift in Chinese culture and, as a result, a positive change in lifestyle choices toward a sustainable and prosperous future. We hope to inspire Chinese citizens to spread the China Dream ideals through word-of-mouth, which is the best channel for persuasion in China. Once conversations on the metro, in restaurants, and in shopping malls begin to gravitate toward sustainable lifestyle choices, we know that we have made an impact.”

How does she feel about China’s future? “I think that the future of China can be a green one, but the window of opportunity is closing quickly. According to Yale 360, China is expected to exceed the US as the world's largest carbon emitter per capita by 2017 – that's only six years away. I think that a cultural shift is entirely possible, especially with the strong and consistent government support for a low-carbon society. Often, we forget to factor in ...human behavior ...in the sustainability equation, and rely too heavily on technology improvements. That's why I think the China Dream project is critical; it treats the root of the problem of a hyper-consumptive culture – the belief that happiness comes from having more, instead of doing more."

Shanghai is going down. Not in any threatening kind of metaphorical sense, in a very literal sense, it’s going down. One day not so far off Nanjing road, People’s Square and that stern, lonely bronze Mao statue may all be buried under the rubble of some of Shanghai’s brand new shiny space-ship skyscrapers, a couple of meters below the surrounding landscape. Shanghai was built on top of it’s own water reserves. Pressed down by the weight of all it’s new development and made unstable by the rapid consumption of the water on which it rests, Shanghai is sinking in some places at a rather alarming rate of one and a half centimeters per year. In a perfect and terrifying metaphor for over-consumption, the people of Shanghai are quite literally drinking themselves into collapse.

It doesn’t have to be so. US and European societies exited the post war period with quite different attitudes towards consumption, based around their unique circumstances, cultures, government policies and histories. As a result, European consumption now is significantly less environmentally impactful than that practised in America. What these differences in experience show us is that consumer culture is not a universal force that naturally springs forth the minute someone anywhere makes two dollars. It requires a supportive policy platform and mass implementation, as well as a receptive population. It needs to be cultivated.

And it’s by no means set in stone that China’s surge forward into consumerism will create another USA. As Karen Stein reminds us in her article ‘Understanding Consumption and Environmental Change in China’, “While the Chinese pattern of consumption follows a path similar to the American type of consumption…it must remain uniquely influenced by the economic and ecological milieu in which it was shaped”.

China’s own form of consumerism is not yet set in stone. There are a number of influencing factors in China’s ‘economic and ecological milieu’ that could still direct this trend somewhere ecologically sound. To begin with, the development of consumer culture in China remains limited by the increasing scarcity of natural resources. Similarly, the continuation of economic growth needed to fund a consumer society is by no means a certainty.

As Richard Heinberg, author of ‘Peak Everything’ argues, “Since China has no viable short-term alternatives to coal to fuel it’s industrial machine, by 2020 or so (and possibly much sooner), that country will have joined the rest of the world in a process of economic contraction that will continue until levels of consumption can be maintained by renewable resources harvested at sustainable rates”.

Hopefully it won’t have to come to that. For many people in China, consumerism is still unaffordable. And, interestingly, even among those whose incomes have increased, spending is slow to increase. China’s average rate of urban household savings relative to disposable incomes has actually risen over the last decade from 18 per cent in 1995 to nearly 29 per cent in 2009. It would seem that Wang Shuxian and her generation’s values of thrift and "rainy day savings" are far more enduring than recent spending patterns would appear to indicate. As suggested by the British Council and China Youth Daily, these old values can still be capitalised upon in the development of sustainable consumer behaviours.

If the people from JUCCCE had their way, these values would endure and blend with a new, fashionable form of environmentalism to curb spending away from ecological crisis-inducing levels. Maybe it’s too ambitious. Maybe it’s an unrealistic aim. But then again, maybe not. China is the first country to ever manage to grow their economy while stabilising greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps it’s not all that unrealistic after all to assume that China will develop it’s own brand of ecologically reasonable "Consumerism with Chinese Characteristics." Maybe bronze Mao’s distress will one day be alleviated by the sight of a Nanjing road restored to functions other than shopping en-masse. Or maybe he’ll slowly sink with the skyscrapers of ‘new’ Shanghai.

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