After the Pandemic, China’s Middle Class Re-Imagines the World
China’s weeklong National Day holiday — celebrated this year from Oct. 1 to Oct. 8 — seemed to offer further evidence, if any was needed, of the country’s post-pandemic economic recovery. With international travel largely off the table, China’s tourists flocked to Chinese tourism sites, bought tickets to Chinese films, and spent money in Chinese shops.
Although the recovery has been uneven, the country’s upper-middle class and above have enjoyed a particularly rapid rebound. But this doesn’t mean things are back to normal. The middle-class lifestyle in China has long incorporated aspects of what scholar Manfred Steger referred to as the global imaginary — that is, the belief that one belongs to a growing and increasingly connected global community. Now, stripped of the ability to travel and consume abroad, many middle-class Chinese are refocusing their attentions inward, while even the holdouts are starting to envision a very different post-coronavirus world.
Vivian Liang, a 30-year-old Shanghai-based consultant, half-jokingly complained to me that she has to buy her Hermès bags in China now. “I passed the mall the other day and saw people lined up in front of luxury brand stores like they were buying train tickets. It’s crazy!” With production down, imports delayed, and demand up, Liang says even getting access to less appealing products now requires buyers first pony up for peihuo — a reference to the unspoken rule that customers need to spend an almost equivalent amount on accessories in order to purchase a bag.
A rational consumer like Liang can walk away from these practices. But their prevalence is evidence that China’s upper middle class remains hungry for foreign luxury goods — and the identity they symbolize — despite the difficulties in procuring them.
China’s upper middle-class have for decades constructed their global imaginaries through the consumption of foreign goods. Partly because of distrust in domestic products, partly to flash their wealth, both middle-class consumers and their wealthier counterparts spend heavily on imports ranging from milk powder and cosmetics to luxury cars.
Although recent years have seen a rise in economic nationalism, with some consumers seeking to support domestic producers and brands, Liang’s experience suggests many middle-class Chinese aren’t willing to give up their international consumption habits just yet. Only now, instead of going abroad for them, Chinese consumers are trending toward what could be called “domesticated” international consumption.
This trend has been helped along by the establishment of more duty-free shopping zones within China. From July 1, the annual duty-free shopping quota in the southern island province of Hainan was increased from 30,000 yuan to 100,000 yuan (from $4,500 to $15,000). During the National Day holiday alone, sales at duty-free stores in Hainan exceeded 1 billion yuan, a nearly 150% increase from the previous year.
Another traditional marker of globalized identity, international education, may also be losing prominence. Liang confessed that the pandemic has given her second thoughts on sending her 2-year-old boy abroad one day. Instead of sending the child to an international school, which would foreclose the chance to one day take China’s ultra-competitive college-entrance exam and attend university on the Chinese mainland, she intends to keep her son’s options open.
Entertainment, too, shows signs of domestication. Many popular reality and talent shows are centered around Western or Western-influenced cultural products, from stand-up comedy to hip-hop and electronica. But for all these shows do to introduce foreign genres to a Chinese audience, they also contribute to their localization and domestication. Rap or rock and roll’s associations with Western countries once played a role in some Chinese citizens’ desire to travel abroad and experience these cultures for themselves, but now many young Chinese are finding worthy performers to follow at home.
Of course, not everyone is willing to tune down their global ambitions. Zhao Bing, a 58-year-old manager at a state-owned enterprise in Shanghai, told me he still hopes the borders will reopen and remain open, allowing individuals to once more move freely around the world. Interestingly, in the course of explaining his stance, Zhao evoked the key state goal of “dual circulation.” The term refers to an official initiative to meet the changing and uncertain global situation by rebalancing the Chinese economy toward domestic consumption and circulation, with international circulation playing a subordinate and supplementary role.
Zhao, however, seemed focused on the potential of the international side of the model, saying that he hoped his Chinese passport would one day give him access to more countries and the Chinese yuan would one day become a global currency. His approach to international consumption differs from that of many Chinese elites, who typically envision the world as a playground, open to anyone, provided they have money to spend. Even now, many wealthy Chinese who share Zhao’s aspirations of global mobility still look to achieve it through buying passports from European Union or Caribbean nations. But Zhao’s global imaginary foresees an emerging global order in which China has become a more dominant player.
In formulating his theory, Steger argued the emergence of the global imaginary was part of the process of developing “a shared sense of a thickening world community,” but Liang and Zhao both perceive the globe through the lens of consumption, and they both still mostly refer to developed countries in constructing their personal global imaginaries. Neither Liang nor Zhao’s imaginaries are premised on the existence of a shared humanity or an identity as a “global citizen.” And now they and their peers are increasingly finding that they can fulfill most of their global consumption needs without going abroad or complicating their Chinese identities.
China’s urban upper-middle class probably won’t give up international consumption or international travel for good, but as local cultural and consumption options diversify, they may become increasingly content with what’s on offer at home. What that means for their identities — and their perceptions of the outside world — remains an open question.
Pseudonyms have been used to protect the identity of the author’s interviewees.
Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Consumers line up outside a Gucci store in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Aug. 4, 2020. Yuan Kejia/People Visual)