Greetings once again dear readers. This time I am checking in from Shanghai, the largest city in the world – a new milestone in my travel history! Where do I start for this last journal in China? First of all, to compare this city with Hangzhou. As I somewhat expected, it is similar yet vastly different. The infrastructure is comparable, with endless housing complexes, chaotic roads and masses of people in every public place (especially the metro during peak time).However, Western cultural influence is far more obvious in Shanghai, “the Paris of Asia”. In this festive season, Christmas carols decorations adorn most buildings, shopping centres and stations. 87 floors above the city, visitors can enjoy signature European dishes and fine wines while listening to Frank Sinatra or Michael Bublé. The French Concession emanates an aura of expatriate nostalgia, with beautifully themed Parisian boutiques and streets. Western luxury can be bought from imposing Romanesque-themed shopping centres and English is far more prevalent. But enough of this cliché travel brochure advertisement! What I want to focus on in this last journal entry is my experience of modern Chinese culture and some of the frustrations I have experienced here. A comment in advance: some parts of this journal may sound bitter or negative, which is partly a result to my homesickness, lack of sleep and slight illness at the time of writing.
In short, this final week has been intense. Not only were we immersed in the big city life, but we were also preoccupied with many company visits. Many of these were New Zealand businesses exporting primary goods to china. The visits were extremely enlightening and an amazing way to complement the theory learned about business in China. In my spare time, I visited many parts of the city, alone or with others from our group. One of my favourite moments was walking through Shanghai’s CBD alone, suited up and blending in. The (literal) pinnacle of this was looking out over Shanghai’s 24 million people from the 87th floor of the World Financial Centre. I also really enjoyed the jazz-themed vibe of many upmarket restaurants and the picturesque streets of the French Concession. Despite all these great moments and great places, I find myself lacking a strong emotional connection with this city. Much of the glamour, grandeur and exoticism has felt superficial or even artificial. Unlike Hangzhou and its surrounds, where we could experience some of China’s traditional culture, I felt the oppressive presence of westernised culture and ideals. As was pointed out to us by certain speakers, Chinese consumers are more and more brand conscious and aspire to Western lifestyles.
During our first visit to Nielsen, Russel our lecturer made a point which instantly spiked my attention. Responding to information about Chinese consumer behaviour, he asked if “Consumption is the religion in China”. This comment at first intrigued me and as I pondered it, I realised that this was precisely what I had felt most alienating during my time in China. Much of what I dislike about modern Chinese society is linked to its consumerism and materialism. Indeed, many of our speakers have reiterated the value that consumers place on image and reputation. An example of this is factory workers and other un-wealthy people all owning an iPhone 6 or other expensive device. We were told that consumers were often willing to work for long periods of time to afford luxury items such as these. In my short visit, I have begun to realise how much of an imperative is placed on the perception of success, determined by perceived wealth and consumption of luxury goods.
So what are some of the reasons that consumerism is a “religion” in China? The first reason in my mind is the atheism of China. China’s largest religion is Buddhism, which represents a small percentage of people. When talking to our university colleagues, many come from unreligious or non-practicing families and are unfamiliar with the beliefs of various religions. Christianity is also very small in china and is tightly controlled by the state: priests must be nominated by the authorities to be allowed to practice in authorised churches. Much of the country’s atheism is linked to its Communist past. Where a society disregards religion, it must replace the divine aspirations and hopes of its members with material aspirations. The second reason is demographic. As one Nielsen speaker explained, “many things in China can be explained by the huge population”. In a society with such a large population, the individual must compete for status and will use consumption as a signal of wealth. The third reason is historic. To be completely candid, China is no longer communist in a social sense. The government has only maintained its autocratic control while using liberal capitalism for development. A speaker from Westland mentioned the parallels between China’s recent growth and England’s industrial revolution. The Cultural Revolution, described by several Chinese lecturers as a “disaster”, has also led to a revolt against traditional culture, leading to more openness to western consumerism.
In conclusion, these reflections are in no way a condemnation of Chinese society. We in the west are in large part to blame. We have in many ways used China as a source of cheap products, for our consumption needs and to the detriment of its people and environment. New Zealand and all western societies also suffer from the same materialism, placing wealth and consumption above religion. The most important lessons this trip has taught me is how much we all must change the way we live, both in China and the West, realising that consumption an end goal and that westernisation is not equal to progress.