For all the talk of modernization, China is still a very insular place. Even in Beijing, it’s possible to walk for hours without seeing another Westerner. If you care to go on such a walk, you’ll be rewarded with long stares from every corner and a chorus of voices calling out “foreigner” behind your back — and often in your face.
Yet take a trip to any shopping center and you’ll find, strikingly, that the large majority of advertisements for luxury products feature Western models. They seem remarkably out of place alongside the Chinese faces urging you to buy soap, iced tea and chewing gum. And at first glance, they would seem to be missing the mark, catering to the wrong audience.
But advertisements such as these aren’t the products of incompetent marketing, but rather symbols of a conspicuous and controversial trend in modern Chinese society. No matter how much the heavies from the Communist Party gesture and harangue, the younger generations of China still conflate anything Western with progress, sophistication and success.
Indeed, any Yalie who has spent time in China will have handfuls of stories illustrating the preferential treatment given to Westerners: scores of local friends, free entry to clubs, undeserved gifts. To some extent, these experiences are simply kind courtesies from proud hosts. But I’ve received one too many courtesies to believe there isn’t something more to it. I don’t believe for one second that the maître d’ who marches me across his restaurant and sits me prominently by the front window is just trying to provide great service.
After all, China’s rapidly expanding middle class is already taking great pains to imitate its Western counterparts. Starbucks sales are estimated to triple before 2015, clothing with any sort of English on it is all the rage and Apple electronics are considered the epitome of cool. The Chinese mind is still obsessed with status, and in today’s heavily commercialized society, status springs from one’s possessions. Western possessions, that is. Mao must be rolling in his grave.
Yet when you confront Chinese nationals on the subject, most turn you away. As one female graduate student explained to me, it’s not about the country of origin; it’s about the quality. As opposed to cheaply made Chinese goods, Western products are tested and proven to be reliable. Given the expense of items like cell phones, watches and leather handbags, Chinese consumers want to make sure they are putting their money in the right place.
That seems logical. Indeed, with the hardships and poverty of recent history still fresh in the collective unconscious, such practicality pervades Chinese culture. The issue is that this initial practical inclination has long since broken free of the bonds of rationality. Chinese consumers are not just snatching up high-quality Western goods but anything with a remote Western tint to it.
Take, for example, Guangdong-based cell phone company OPPO. To promote the release of a new smartphone, it recently launched one of the most expensive advertising campaigns ever, paying a whopping $5 million to the featured actor: Leonardo DiCaprio. Despite the fact that the phone won’t reach markets outside of China, the ad is based in Paris and filmed entirely in English.
I asked an OPPO employee why the company shot such a commercial. His response? OPPO is aiming to convince Chinese consumers of the association between its electronics and the West. That would make it one of many such Chinese companies.
That’s not to say there is zero localization in the Chinese market. There certainly is. Every international corporation must observe the unique sensitivities and tastes of the Chinese public, starting with the translation of its name and ranging from social hierarchy to religious belief. Some, such as Kentucky Fried Chicken, go farther, modifying their offerings and presentation to suit local sensibilities. But for every KFC, there is a McDonald’s, which markets itself in China as the embodiment of the American lifestyle and serves an almost identical menu as in the States.
All this Westernization of the Chinese consciousness is directly at odds with the official line emerging from Beijing. As President Hu Jintao and his colleagues see it, Chinese culture does not assimilate into other cultures; it engulfs others. “We have constantly perfected the socialist system, while exploring and developing socialism with Chinese characteristics,” the chairman is fond of saying. Intrusions on his system, be they political, economic or cultural, are very much unwelcome.
Still, despite suffocating regulations on the Chinese market, Western luxury items have gained a firm foothold in Chinese households and, more significantly, in the collective imagination. The trend must surely prove be a destabilizing one. Private hopes and desires cannot depart from the national vision without causing tension. What is yet to be seen is if this Chinese fixation with the Westerner will endure or if China will create its own, localized ideal of success and sophistication.
Rory Marsh is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.