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.
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.
“Taiwan exerted an early and very powerful influence on the spread and growth of Chinese consumerism. What’s important to keep in mind here is that, as with cars, this brought a cascade of consequences. China wanted Taiwanese investment dollars, technology, and expertise – so it opened the door. Taiwanese spied an opportunity and charged through it. But China didn’t bring in the Taiwanese in expectation of building a market for bubble tea. If you take billions of dollars of Taiwanese investment dollars, it turns out you also get better fried dough sticks and bubble tea, which sets off new desires and market competition. Suddenly the issue isn’t if you drink coffee, but what brand and where.”
As a result of economic reform there has been a rise of a new Chinese elite and therefore new inequality. For a country that has long been considered among the most egalitarian in the world, this new sense of inequality makes millions of Chinese and their government uneasy. Tens of millions of Chinese have been lifted out of poverty and gained access to products before unimaginable. But for tens of millions of other Chinese this is not the case. The country has a heck of a job ahead of itself, Gerth points out, as it attempts to maneuver through that rapid transition harmoniously. He also touches upon the perils of unregulated markets, particularly given a global appetite for human trafficking, endangered animals, and wood. Then he explores the consequences of more waste and pollution, and the challenges created by rapidly changing social dynamics.
In the end, Gerth asks readers to consider that, in order to avert major problems, more than just changes to China will be needed. World consciousness – reflected in consumer behavior – might need to change.
Due to the very nature of China – huge, complicated, full of historical nuance – picking up a book that attempts to explain even a fragment of it can be downright daunting, even to the China enthusiast. But in this shrinking world, China is a country worth understanding and Gerth provides a wealth of information in a digestible, provocative format.
The United States and Europe have become increasingly worried about China’s influence and the current discussion hovers around currency, war, and jobs. As the hype increases, it seems a good time to examine just what is changing in the fourth largest country in the world. Though slim on solutions, “As China Goes, So Goes the World,” is an important read.
Jenna Fisher is the Monitor’s Asia editor.