If you have spent much time in China’s major cities, you have no doubt seen a few hundred new luxury cars, up and coming urbanites clutching Louis Vuitton bags or sporting a new Rolex watch, and more than a few people talking loudly on their iPhones. This rampant materialism even seems to surpass what I saw in the US a few years back.
As I’ve mentioned before, when co-workers return from overseas trips, more often than not, I hear about what they bought rather than what they saw. One friend told me he had spent over $25,000 on watches during a brief trip to Taiwan. Another said she had bought 4 new designer bags on a trip to Hong Kong. This binge shopping is shrugged off when people discuss how much they “saved” by avoiding China’s high taxes on these products.
The Party has realized the value in promoting the pursuit of material goods, as it bolsters the economy and maintains the status quo. The other day, the People’s Daily approved the idea that gov’t officials shouldn’t spend more than 180,000RMB on a car, which is more than most Chinese farmers make in 30 years, as if this was a reasonable way to spend public funds (they were heralding the Gov’t's responsible nature in lowering the limit from 200,000RMB).
This growth of materialism in China’s more affluent areas surprised me when I arrived in Chengdu from the countryside of Guangxi. I actually experienced culture shock the first time I visited one of the large foreign supermarkets (Metro). My Chinese co-worker laughed at me as I marveled at all of the choices while slowly wandering down each and every aisle. To her, I was another country bumpkin (she actually used 土包子 tubaozi) exploring China’s big cities for the first time.
In some ways I was.
When I was in Guangxi, I tried my best to live simply. Students were either given a little pocket money from their parents who made much less than $1,000/year, or worked part time jobs that paid about 2-3RMB/hour ($.25-.37 at the time). Nobody had much money to spend, so it was pointless to dream of things they could never afford.
We did the math in class one day, at 3RMB/hour it would take over a year of working 40 hour weeks to earn enough to buy an iPhone, making it an extremely luxurious item to my students. Yet they seemed proud of the fact that some Chinese were able to afford these goods now, even if they couldn’t. They accepted that some people had money to spend, but realized they probably never would.
In the present, they felt fortunate for the little they had. They wore additional fabric sleeves to protect their jackets and sweaters in the winter, they moved carefully through the rain for the sake of their shoes, and almost never left a scrap of food behind during a meal. I greatly admired their sense of thrift, and I think my grandparents, who grew up in the Great Depression, would too.
After a few months, spending more than 100RMB on anything became a “major purchase,” even though it was well within my budget. My wife and I both became extremely frugal, and our definitions of “need” and “want” became much clearer (My “itoos®” Mp3 player still works occasionally, so I don’t “need” an iPod ).
This absence of materialism in the Chinese countryside was one of the things I most frequently praised China for. Now, living in Nanjing, the never ending pursuit of material goods that I see around me is one of the things that bothers me most. Possibly because just as Guangxi made me thankful for what I had, Nanjing just makes me want more.