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Chinese middle class too enamored of new, shining things
Global Times | May 14, 2012 20:50
By Eva Cohen
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Illustration: Sun Ying

In the expression "something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue," one gets the perception that each of these is equally important for a bride to wear on her wedding day.

Old things reinforce "tried and true" concepts, and balance out the untested waters of new things.

The same reverence for old and used products, however, is not found within Chinese views toward second-hand items.

When buying a car, for example, it does not matter how much love the previous owner may have put into making sure the vehicle ran smoothly. On a grand scale, Chinese buyers prefer the smell of a new ride.

Where do these sentiments come from? There is a Chinese expression, "In a basket of peaches, if even one has been bitten into, all are ruined."

Although there is a growing affluent community in China, this attitude appears to be especially strong within the middle class; a variation on keeping up with the Joneses.

The drive to replace cars as soon as possible with the newest model is putting a huge strain on personal finances. The need to get the shiniest new toy also points to an excessive focus on materialism.

China is seeing a rapid expansion in retail outlets for high-end fashion, luxury car manufacturing plants and other chic products which exude a perceived "status."

While there are more millionaires and billionaires each year in China, for middle class families who must face buying into an expensive housing market, or how to best invest their money, buying into this mentality can put materialism above their child's education.

While this down-spiraling materialistic cycle is prevalent in large Chinese cities, there is an interesting side effect to note. Where there are urban communities in which used washers, dryers and other home appliances are thrown out, a system of bringing these unwanted products to the countryside has sprung up.

The availability of modern appliances outside large urban centers is often limited, so the same attitudes toward used products do not exist there to the same extent.

Adversely, in these communities, the same weight is not put on purchasing a new product. The distribution of usable second-hand items that make their way to the countryside shows the resourcefulness of those associated with these communities.

Items discarded far before their due date, like a 1-year-old dryer, also allow rural areas to have a greater abundance of items rarely seen before. The ability to own quasi-new appliances also may give some households an amount of leisure time that was not previously present.

So, although personal debt load in urban centers is running out of control, at least something positive is coming out of the system.

What would be the best alternative? It's really tough to combat social and class attitudes toward spending habits, but there are a couple of strategies that could be employed. 

School children need to have impressed upon them the importance of keeping family finances under control, especially high school and university students, so that when they graduate and begin their own families in the near future, the focus will be upon the family, and not upon status and material goods.

Used car dealerships and other companies selling used goods could employ better marketing strategies to target the middle class families who are struggling with debt by mentioning that factor in particular.

For example, a slogan could read: "Look and feel great without breaking the bank."

The government could also step in and put higher taxes on major purchases for families living within a certain tax bracket.

As for the rural people who benefit? Used items could still be transported to their communities, but perhaps with these products now a couple of years older.

The author is a copy editor with the Global Times.

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