When China says jump we need to ask, how high?

Updated: 2011-10-25 08:01

By Joseph Christian (China Daily)

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At the first university I taught at in China I used to discuss with my students what the campus would be like if every teacher started driving a car to class.

After three years at that university, most of the teachers did have cars. Open spaces and courtyards that once were used by students to roller blade or play badminton were taken over by masses of car owners proudly displaying their new middle class lifestyle.

When China says jump we need to ask, how high?

The other day I was reading through some assessments that Stanley Rosen, an expert in Chinese politics and society at the University of Southern California, was making about the first generation that matured into adulthood after the founding of the PRC in 1949. "They were proud of their thriftiness and lack of material comforts," Rosen wrote.

That's quite different from what makes people proud in China today. I could just imagine what would happen if I got on Sina Weibo and started to give advice to modern Chinese using the slogans so popular in those days. No doubt Chinese netizens would quickly tear me apart for being impracticable, idealistic and completely naive.

Globalization and the introduction of free markets have changed the priories of most Chinese. I don't hear too many people talking about how to "serve the people".

Still, many of my Chinese friends and students are quick to turn a critical eye upon my home country, the United States.

"I think America is a selfish country, they have so few people yet consume so many resources," one of my students told me after class.

"Why do Americans spend so much money that they don't have to buy things they really don't need?" a friend asked me.

Such comments don't upset me and there is no need to argue, the vast and often wasteful consumption of both the American people and government is a well-established fact and its consequences are well known.

But what about consumerism in China? Chinese have long been renowned for their ability to save, with consumption only making up around 36 percent of their GDP compared to it counting for well over 70 percent of GDP in America.

But there is a change going on and I see it with my own eyes. Chinese youths are not as inclined to save as their parents were.

I have a Chinese friend who bought a house on credit and then used this as collateral to buy another apartment only to turn around and use his second apartment to obtain a loan to buy a new car. Really, the only thing he has to do to become an honorary American is to refinance one of his apartments.

Consumerism and easier access to credit is catching on fast. I'm not trying to say that credit is easier to get in China or that Chinese consumerism has outpaced American consumerism, but no one is going to argue against the fact that obtaining credit is easier and Chinese are buying more than ever before.

In the end such consumer growth doesn't have to be a bad thing for China, but I keep on thinking back to effects I saw when all the teachers at the first university I taught at started buying cars. Their increased consumption had a negative impact upon the lives of others as well as the environment.

At the end of September, Yao Ming took the stage in Shanghai to appeal to Chinese people to stop consuming shark fins, which have long been a Chinese delicacy. According to Yao it never used to be a problem, but now with money to burn, Chinese people are eating so many shark fins that they are threatening the stability of shark populations.

The power of consumerism is a concept well presented in Jonathan Watts' book When a Billion Chinese Jump. The point is clear, how Chinese people choose to consume and deal with their newfound wealth and the freedom it brings will have a large impact on the world. As someone that has long term plans in China, it is something I sure hope the Chinese people get right.


When China says jump we need to ask, how high?