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As China Goes, So Goes the World

The world’s fourth-largest country is undergoing transformation at a break-neck speed. What does that mean for the rest of us?

By / December 6, 2010

As China Goes, So Goes the World: How Chinese Consumers Are Changing Everything By Karl Gerth Farrar, Straus and Giroux 272 pp., $26

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China. It’s vast, it’s complicated, and it’s a very hot story right now. In a matter of a few short decades the country has transformed itself from “closed for business” to an economic powerhouse. Gone are the days of having to carry around and reuse one pair of chopsticks for years. Today, Beijing alone consumes 10 million pairs of disposable chopsticks daily. Gone are the days when transportation meant identical bicycles crowding city streets. China has become the No. 1 consumer of cars in the world. And these changes just begin to tell the story of an increasingly Western-style, consumer-driven China.

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But what are the consequences of such rapid changes?

“The Chinese don’t even have to ‘catch up’ with the developed world to trigger profound global changes,” writes Karl Gerth, author of As China Goes, So Goes the World. “They just have to keep doing what they are already doing: moving in the American direction.”

The full title of Gerth’s book is “As China Goes, So Goes the World: How Chinese Consumers Are Transforming Everything”... and if “everything” sounds like a bit of a hyperbole, give Gerth a chance to explain. His point is that even as Western-style consumerism has driven major changes within China, that same trend driving production and capitalism also has a ripple effect that has the potential to make drastic cultural, economic, and environmental changes both inside and outside the country.

Chinese consumption is sometimes touted as a means of saving the global economy. The theory goes as follows: Chinese demand for American and European high-tech goods, financial services, and other products will create jobs and world economic growth, even as it encourages an increasingly capitalistic and eventually (though this is stated less often) democratic China. The problem with this line of thinking, Gerth soberly points out, is that even as the Chinese government pushes consumerism, it has also opened a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences. “The hopes and dreams of the consumer – without whom the launch of any new market is a nonstarter – are not so readily restrained,” Gerth says.

Gerth, who teaches modern Chinese history at Oxford University, compares recent visits to China with his early visits in the 1980s, providing helpful then-and-now contrasting snapshots of rapid growth. He explains that it was Taiwan that really hastened the spread of consumerism within China and thus altered the course of China – and everyone else as well.

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