Like all developing country, China has developed a passion for brand names along with the improving living standards of its people. I remember 40 years ago, my nephew in Italy asked me to bring him a pair of jeans from Canada. When I did, he was deeply disappointed not finding the "Levi's" brand on it. At that time I was unaware of the importance some people place on brand names that they could show off to others.
The Chinese's passion for luxury goods led the country to make, sell and buy counterfeit designer items. This has been a problem especially in the last two decades. But now that the Chinese are enjoying better incomes, they are ready to spend what it costs to get the real thing.
It was not too long ago that Taiwan opened its doors to tourists from the Chinese mainland. There are several daily flights to the island, with tours lasting 3 to 8 days. Some Chinese mainlanders take these trips as often as three times a year.
According to a report published by World Luxury Association, which was quoted by China Daily on Dec. 26, 2011, "total consumption in the Chinese mainland luxury market reached $10.7 billion in 2010, excluding private jets, yachts or luxury cars, making the country the world's second largest consumer of luxury goods following Japan."
Fake brand-name goods and illegal copies no longer interest the Chinese, but if they buy in Taiwan, they can enjoy a huge tax refund or exemption that easily covers the 5,000 yuan the guided tour costs, which include flights, hotels, three meals a days, air-conditioned bus rides, and admission fees at museums and attractions.
Last December, I joined one of these travel groups to Taiwan, though its purpose seemed more shopping than seeing the sights. We toured the whole island in one week, and I enjoyed the beautiful sceneries of mountains and sea, and had a chance to admire beautiful gold and silver jewelry inlaid with diamonds, pearls, jade and coral, taste the most expensive tea from Ali Mountains, and discover Taiwan's large variety of cakes and sweets.
But I also learned about Chinese mainlanders while observing them spending without limits on luxury cosmetics and brand-name goods. A woman spent over 20,000 yuan on three handbags. A young couple bought a huge amount of tea packs to give to friends and colleagues. They made me ask myself the questions: Is China still a developing country? What about the gap between the rich and the poor? As the wealthy get richer, the needy are considered poorer. In a sane society, is such a phenomenon amoral?
Most of my travelling companions had changed thousands of yuan on arrival, while I had changed only 300 yuan - after all, all expenses were already paid. People around me started to wonder whether I was poor… or even a "spy." So, on the bus, I asked the guide to let me use the microphone to explain to the group of 15 that I did not judge, criticize or blame them. They could do what they want with their honestly earned money. But my purpose for traveling was different from theirs. I have visited dozens of countries; what I like is discovering the people and the way they live and think.
I also told the group what I do with my money: I prefer to support the education of the needy children in China. During the last five years, I have helped several humanistic and cultural projects mainly for the Tibetan communities of Qinghai, which still has a lot of trouble raising sufficient funds. How great could it be if only 0.5 percent of the money spent on luxury goods could be donated to keep people alive and allow children to go to school?
The author is a freelance Italo-Canadian writer living in Beijing.
Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.