You are what you consume

Updated: 2013-02-15 07:53

By Diao Ying (China Daily)

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 You are what you consume

Oxford historian Karl Gerth says the everyday choices Chinese consumers make will influence everything from Chinese politics to the global environment. Patricia Thornton / for China Daily

By observing the retail patterns of Chinese consumers, historian Karl Gerth uncovers people's standing and aspirations, as Diao Ying reports.Diao Ying

Karl Gerth has spent a quarter of a century learning about China, but is wise enough to realize how little he still knows. When Gerth first visited China in 1986 he was a college student with barely enough money for a pizza and a six-pack of beer. But in the eyes of his Chinese classmates, because he came from the United States he was rich.

Gerth, now a historian at the University of Oxford specializing in the study of consumerism, remembers being surprised at the absence of cars in Nanjing, where he stayed on his first trip. There was no noise, he wrote.

China has changed a lot since then. It is now the world's largest manufacturer and retailer of cars and a voracious consumer of beer, among other things.

People in the West advance many reasons to explain China's economic success, the most obvious and most widely cited being Deng Xiaoping's reform and opening-up policy. However, Gerth feels that's not the whole story.

"These are facts and these are true. But we already know it," he said. Given the country's size and the pace of change, "you can say anything about China and it's kind of right".

There may be simple answers to a lot of complex questions, and they all have some truth in them, but they do not explain things thoroughly or give any clue about what we will know next, he said.

Gerth now teaches at Merton College, Oxford. His office faces the river, where he often rows for two hours in the early morning.

Books, ranging from business history to literary classics, dominate his office. One drawer has a selection of Chinese tea, acquired during trips to China, including a mix of Pu'er and ginger and Tieguanyin, or "Iron Goddess of Mercy".

As a historian, Gerth believes that history is shaped by people at the bottom as well as those at the top, and that consumption drives society as much as production. His latest book, As China Goes, So Goes the World, is an attempt to explain China from a different perspective: How the everyday choices Chinese consumers make will influence everything, from Chinese politics to the global environment.

While researching the book, Gerth was all eyes and ears; he talked to people in small shops and supermarkets and observed his surroundings. It soon became clear to him that the Chinese are driven by the "desire to have things, better things and more things".

He admitted that studying China through the eyes of its consumers is not necessarily the best approach, but it helped him discard irrelevancies and reach proper conclusions. The idea of consumerism is that people communicate who they are through the things they buy in the marketplace.

In a consumer culture, people's identities are shaped by their gender, accent and education, as well as the items they use. For example, a person who drives a gas-guzzling Hummer is not the same as someone who owns a fuel-efficient Prius.

The difference between China and the West in adopting consumer culture is its speed and scale. Since World War II, people in the West may have learned to ask for "Coke" instead of asking for "Sugar water", and Coca-Cola only opened its first plant in China in 1981. China has its own characteristics, but the Chinese are not from Mars, said Gerth. Because of China's size and the pace of change, a lot of things that happen in the country may have a different level of intensity, he said.

Those circumstances shape the way consumers see themselves, and also influence policymakers at the top, too. One of the Chinese government's main priorities is to drive domestic consumption. That's no easy task, and so the authorities need to take heed of social problems.

People talk about the Chinese being thrifty, Gerth said, but the truth is that, apart from the richest members of society, the average person needs to save enough money for housing, healthcare and their children's education before they can really open their wallet or purse and consume, regardless of the blandishments of advertising.

This means that policymakers have to create a large middle class, and Chinese companies have to move up the value chain. "The logic of reform is an unfolding process; circumstances decided that they have to take a certain road, not others," he said. Deng Xiaoping famously opined that the Communist Party needed to cross the river by feeling the stones, that is, by careful touch and navigation. "The problem is that once you have left the stones, it (the path) disappears," Gerth says. "You stop in the middle and there is no going back. You have to keep moving."

Seeing things from the perspective of consumption also reveals the conflict in issues such as the environment.

Western governments and companies want China to consume more. At the same time, they criticize it for polluting the environment. These things contradict each other. If the Chinese eat as much meat as people in the West, many species are likely to become extinct. If the Chinese drive as many cars as their Western counterparts, the planet will be headed for eco-disaster.

Some critics say Chinese society is dominated by materialism, but Gerth disagrees. Consumption may not always lead to bad things. While consumers seek pleasure, they also gain other things, such as a different view of the world or a new approach to life.

For instance, when Chinese travel, they experience adventures and see other parts of the world. When they shop for a luxury handbag, they are buying a meaning for life. In five or 10 years, once they have gone beyond this level, things will change. As with consumers in the US or Europe, they may start to pay attention to the environment and fair trade. In fact, that is already happening in China now.

Meanwhile, Chinese brands are emerging onto the global stage. This is something they simply have to do to win a larger share of the global market.

"As in American football," said Gerth, "the best offense is defense."

As evidence, Lenovo, China's leading computer company, bought the personal computer division of IBM. Meanwhile, Huawei, one of the world's largest telecommunication companies, is establishing itself in terms of price and technology. Just like Sony and Hyundai, Chinese brands will improve the lives of consumers elsewhere.

They may make things cheaper and easier to use, as they did in manufacturing. There will be successes and there will be failures, but Chinese companies have no alternative but to try, said Gerth.

Many governments are still cautious about China, said Gerth, with reference to the recent US congressional report on the rejection of overtures from Huawei. In addition to the oft-quoted security concerns, the real issue is fundamentally about whether countries want Chinese investment or not.

Gerth described his new book as being as much an academic quest as a means of explaining his experiences in China over 25 years. He travels to China frequently and so has experienced many of the changes. He has witnessed the transformation of remote southwestern areas such as Lijiang in Yunnan province, a place blessed with tranquility and night skies studded with stars. Rural idylls such as this are now packed with tourists and Western-style bars, he said.

Now, after spending five years working on the book, Gerth feels he has an intellectual appreciation of what is happening in China. Nothing that happens in the country can surprise him, although some things do disappoint him, he said.

The late Harvard historian John King Fairbank once said that learning about China is like drawing a circle. Inside the circle is knowledge, and outside is ignorance. Fairbank said that he often felt that as his knowledge about China grew, so did his ignorance. Gerth admitted that he feels the same way.

"The more I know, the less I feel I know. And that makes me humble."

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You are what you consume

(China Daily 02/15/2013 page5)