They sat around a private table at a popular coffee haunt in 1912. Lattes and mochas in hand, they laughed and joked as they caught up; it had been a while. Lin sat at the end, her long black hair swivelled softly against the back of the chair as she reached for her Coach bag.
Xia sat next to her, tying her Chihuahua’s lead to the chair, while Jing Jing sat opposite frantically swiping up on her phone as she searched through the pictures of her latest holiday.
“Oh I’ve got it. Here it is, this is the first room we stayed in (at the Maldives); after this they upgraded us to the suite”, said Jing Jing with a smile that stretched from ear to ear. “Just look at that water…and here’s one of the sunset, breathtaking isn’t it?” she enquired of them both, scanning their faces to judge reactions. Jealousy would have suited her fine. Matching Jing Jing’s poker smile, Lin was quick to shove her iPhone 7 into view. “This is us; trekking the Peruvian mountains. There are some old ruins or something there (Machu Picchu) but look at these views, just stunning. They should knock down those ruins, it’s prime real estate”, said Lin with an annoying squeal to her voice. Feeling like she was losing the race, Xia flashed her pink diamond rock at them both and announced, “he proposed… at Darling Harbour in Sydney”.
It all begins with nothing; for if one has nothing, naturally one will want something. As recently as the 1980’s ,Nanjing was rationing soap; obtaining a bar meant first being in possession of a voucher and a wad of cash. It is almost unfathomable how fast things have changed, but does that make an addiction to shopping understandable?
When we hear the word addiction, it most certainly, and for good reason, has mostly negative connotations.
Can an addiction ever become acceptable? Or should we name and shame everyone equally brandishing his or her weakness about for all to critique?
The Chinese are now the largest consumer of luxury goods in the world. As the largest purchasers of red wine, for example, the spending does not seem to be slowing down. “Chinese overseas students in America have become a new force in US consumption…In 2015, Chinese tourists paid 1 million visits to Australia and spent about 35.5 billion yuan in the country, helping Australia to achieve its 10-year goal in only five years… Chinese tourists have become more rational in their spending, switching their priorities from luxury goods to vacations”, said Wei Zhihong, General Manager of the European branch of UnionPay International, reported Liang Jun from the People’s Daily.
However, westerners are also not exempt from this type of behaviour; perhaps they should not go about wagging their fingers and tutting under their breaths too quickly. For as China was handing out soap rations, an 80’s economic boom swept through Wall Street and every banker known to humankind became a millionaire. Spending fever hit America and quickly influenced the western world. Everyone and their dog needed a red sports car and their own mobile phone, or to be more precise, mobile brick.
It has only taken a couple of generations of this in order to really see it for what it is; just money, and that money cannot buy happiness. My parents are divorced; I come from a generation that saw the highest divorce rate in history. I put this down to dissatisfaction. The more people have, the more they want, and the more dissatisfied they become with what they have.
The western world now has one of the worst gaps in income equality ever and it only gets worse. The good news, however, is that divorce rates are on the decline, as more and more couples are quitting the fast lane in search for a more humble stable life.
So is it only natural that China is experiencing the same sort of boom? And will it happen that she too gives it all up in the realisation that money does not buy happiness?
Divorce rates are on the rise in China, suggesting that a pattern is forming.
When Nanjing is compared with Tokyo, it is still roughly 50 percent cheaper, in everyway. Until the disparity between wages and cost of living closes, Chinese people will have the money to keep on shopping.
While alcohol addiction is explained in four different stages; experimentation, regular use, risky use/abuse and dependence; a definition of its retail equivalent can be seen in the Five Sequential Phases of Shopping Addiction (Sohn & Choi, 2013) that are retail therapy, denial, debt-ridden, impulsive buying and compulsive buying. There is certainly an addiction to spending across large swathes of the populace in Nanjing but the aforementioned traditional explanatory model does not apply in China, primarily due to the concept of “face”. Is there a need for retail “therapy” in China? I don’t think so; life is good here, better than before. What’s there to be sad about? Debt is becoming a new problem in China and the Chinese are not known for their impulsive buying either. What we are left with is is compulsive buying. So what are the Chinese phases of shopping addiction?
PHASE 1: Aspiration and Discovery
For the majority of mainlanders who have not lived or spent considerable time abroad, many western things are new. Wine, cars, coffee, dairy and home cleaning products are all first-time items on the wish list for affluent Chinese. In addition, in comparison to the west and its “old bourgeois money”, most wealthy Chinese are relatively new to this game, and therefore the idea of “keeping up with the Jones’” is also a pretty modernistic concept.
PHASE 2: Honeymoon
The second phase sees Chinese people acquiring a genuine liking for having money to spend and proving to one another that they have “made it”. This is also the phase where money becomes no object.
PHASE 3: Competition/Face
Due to the nature of Chinese culture, mixing wealth with “face” is a dangerous concept, for it begins to become impossible to chose a humbler life path without fear of being judged or “losing face”. Unless you join a nunnery (still thankfully a fairly respectable position in life), having more than your neighbours becomes an increasing pressure. While we have no wish to paint all with the same brush, for certain segments of modern Chinese society, every dinner outing or luncheon becomes a struggle to show who can trump the other by paying for evermore extravagant meals, parties etc.
These are the kind of social-status signals that Lin, Xia and Jing Jing were displaying as they talked about their branded goods and sophisticated travel experiences. Global Blue, a tourism shopping tax refund company, found that shopping was a crucial part of their itinerary for 82 percent of Chinese travellers. In the UK for example, the Chinese spend three times the market average per person per trip. A good proportion of this goes on shopping. The Economist wryly noted that, “Chinese tourists have no problem buying Prada by day but sleeping in two-star hotels by night”.
PHASE 4: Realisation
After the third house has been purchased in Australia (in addition to the two in Nanjing, of course), and while sitting in the queue back at the bank ready to take out another loan, slowly then does it start to sink in. Spending is now way out of hand and perhaps money does not grow on trees; this luxurious lifestyle could end at any moment. The ultra rich in China need not have such worries, their funds will never dry up. This is nothing more than a woeful middle class tale of credit, just as when Western countries played with temporary money and did not want it to end.
PHASE 5: Addiction
Which brings us to our last and final phase full blown addiction. When we get a taste for something we like, it is very hard to give it up. The emerging wealthy Chinese middle class have grown an appetite for red wine and salmon, organic coffee and tapas bars. Furthermore, the idea of keeping up with the Jones’ seems stronger here than I ever remember it in the west. All in all, a predictable disaster for the all too cumbersome rhetoric of a “harmonious nation”.
The sweet smell of money and success that is Capitalism. For a country of 1.3 billion people, it seems China’s political stance at the moment is what’s working best. A total break away from one party rule would once again see great changes in the psyche of the Chinese people.
However, in saying all of this, I have an underlying belief that thousands of years of thought and practice, strong family values and a hard work ethic will see the country through this phase.
For all the sages and philosophers in China that would have us learn from the mistakes of others, the shopoholics of the Middle Kingdom cannot understand quickly enough that money, while necessary in life, does not buy happiness.