China's Western appetite

Broad avenues along a well-kept waterfront swarm with Japanese, German, French, and American cars and trucks. Commuters at bus stops wait for sleek, brightly decorated buses to carry them to their offices or favorite shopping areas. Rows of lampposts sport Pepsi logos. Fashion-conscious pedestrians chat on cellphones or check their voicemail. Meanwhile, billboard advertisements promote the latest Hollywood releases: "The Matrix Reloaded" and "Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde."

Where is this scene taking place? New York City? Seattle? London? Paris? Think again: It's Wuhan, China, during the scorching hot summer of 2003.

Wuhan is a sprawling business and industrial hub along the massive Yangtze River in central China. Most Westerners have never heard of Wuhan, but its population exceeds that of Los Angeles. It is an excellent example of the changes that have transformed the texture of life in China over the past several years.

My first visit to China, eight years ago, took me to its capital, Beijing. China in 1995 appeared poised on the verge of a huge transformation, but it was unclear what the transformation would look like.

The country seemed a lively, if confusing, mixture of tradition, socialism, and contemporary capitalism. The capitalist element - as typified by McDonald's outlets, high-end apartments, and personal pagers - was prominent, but it continued to stand out against a backdrop of traditional buildings, Mao jackets, and pedicabs delivering coal briquettes.

Fast-forward to Wuhan in 2003: In the intervening years, globalization has taken the helm. Television is as good a place as any to observe this. Numerous programs today direct themselves toward affluent, happily self-absorbed youths. The title of one of these shows translates as "TV Nation."

Another show is clearly a Chinese version of "Soul Train," complete with Chinese dance groups and well-heeled audience members grooving to soul and rap music. The emphasis here is on outlandish styles, as when an attractive young woman wearing minimal clothes and a Cher-like feather headdress dances onstage. The overall point is unmistakable: Young Chinese can indeed shake their booties with as much esprit as anyone on earth.

Meanwhile, the streets of Wuhan attest to the changes that have taken place in people's lives. Wuhan today is the most colorful city I have ever seen, owing mainly to the endless stream of advertisements - large and small - that grace every building and thoroughfare. Car traffic predominates; now some streets actually prohibit bicycles. Passersby dress in the same fashions as in the contemporary West, and the young, in particular, display no hesitation about showing affection in public.

Many of China's recent changes reveal a Japanese influence. In fact, advertising layouts and product designs can create the illusion that one is visiting Japan rather than China.

Japan's effects are hard to overstate, appearing in such diverse spheres as women's fashions, TV game shows, popular cartoons, and the sentimental songs sung at countless karaoke bars. Even the pervasive craze for studying English has the earmark of China's smaller, richer neighbor.

Is China's new consumerism strictly urban? It does display itself far more intensely in the cities than in rural areas. However, even country folk sometimes wear simple, button-down shirts with English words or cartoon figures printed on them. And some farmers who plough their rice paddies with water buffaloes return at night to houses that sport a single light bulb - and a television set.

In so many ways, China confounds the conventional wisdom of educated Americans regarding that nation.

A country that many of us still regard as isolated has reentered the economic and cultural weave of the East Asian region. A country that many of us still regard as proud to the point of arrogance has displayed considerable openness - and even the beginnings of an inferiority complex - toward the outside world.

And a country that many of us still regard as having a repressive Communist regime has embraced consumerist capitalism with barely a nod (if that) toward its ideological past. American media outlets may continue to stress the deeds of the Chinese government, but in many ways, it is the Chinese people, especially its affluent, who are in the driver's seat.

David B. Gordon is assistant professor of East Asian History at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W. Va.

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