Modern obsession with consumption changes everything

By Wan Lixin
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Shanghai Daily, November 17, 2016
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At about 1:00am on Friday, I woke up from my sleep and found my son still doing homework.

I checked the WeChat accounts of other parents at my son's school, and found dozens of messages to catch up with. There was obviously something big going on.

But the excitement had little to do with homework, or their children. It was about the great shopping extravaganza that would start just after midnight.

I'm referring, of course, to November 11. In a matter of just a few years, this date, originally known as "Singles' Day" for its image in Chinese (11.11 representing four single persons), has become a day marked by steep price cuts and explosive sales on online goods. Think Black Friday, but even larger and more extreme.

When I browsed the Internet on November 13, the dust still hadn't quite settled, with advertisements popping-up with messages like: "All products on fire, mad scramble for 24 hours!" and "A belligerent nation's November 11." There were also reports with headlines such as "Delivery woman sending 300 parcels a day."

One well-known online tycoon appeared on stage to triumphantly proclaim his satisfaction with over 100 billion yuan (US$14.58 billion) in recorded sales on Singles' Day alone. He also expressed hope that this day would continue to be associated with explosive online sales for many years to come.

As other countries fumble for solutions to their own economic challenges, spending seems to be an answer to every problem here in China.

Consumption seems to be the key to unlocking the country's pent-up economic potential.

In good times, it promises sustained growth. In lean years, it can be a shot in the arm: a way to put things back on track by normalizing, rebalancing, kick-starting the economy.

Many economic planners seem to believe that online shopping sprees will drive people to work harder and look for higher-paying jobs. This pressure will complete the cycle of economic growth.

Encouraging spending may also prove effective because Chinese have traditionally been big savers.

People of my generation grew up during a time of material scarcity and rationing, when frugality was held up as the highest virtue. With almost no exceptions, our parents used to save feverishly for rainy days.

The few big-ticket items available at that time — bicycles, sewing machines and watches, particularly those made in Shanghai — were prized for their durability.

In those days, wastefulness was a sin, even though the damning ecological consequences of excess were largely unknown.

The elevation of consumption as a marker of prosperity has led to a paradigm shift.

Traditional notions of frugality seem restrictive against the excitement of progress that comes in the form of new products, new brands, and new labels. Transience has replaced durability at the top of the value table.

There is a national obsession with novelty driving rapid turnover in everything, as we switch from one attraction (or distraction) to the next.

Our compatriots have become more indulgent and tolerant, good-humoredly quipping about "chopping fingers" (as a vow not to buy again). But the real message is that spending sprees are no big deal; and if you do chop off your fingers, you risk being left behind.

Our shopping habits are also certainly the envy of our neighbors.

During my recent trip to Japan, for instance, Chinese assistants were often on hand to help me with my shopping.

They did not even feel the need to ask about my nationality — even though I was far from being the stereotyped Chinese who would snap up everything in the shop in the belief that goods there were cheaper and of better quality than back home.

Interestingly, this sensitivity to cheapness is probably also a legacy of the years of scarcity, when a modest income had to go a long way.

Consumption has certainly come a long way, becoming a hallmark of success and satisfaction in all its modern subtleties.

There is the pleasure at plenitude in terms of consumer choice, the ecstasy of sniffing out new tidbits, the sublime freedom of clicking something into your shopping cart. By comparing notes and moralizing on our latest purchases via social tools, our social bonds with like-minded comrades are tightened.

This charming cycle of seeking out new wants and new satisfactions is dictating a new ethos where the mundane and the spiritual converge, seamlessly until every aspect of our existence becomes a clearly defined product, in perpetual need of being justified, defended, or made sense of in reference to market principles.

You ignore this at your own peril.

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