Academic journal article Journal of Third World Studies

Leaving the "Third World": Is Consumerism Transforming China?

Academic journal article Journal of Third World Studies

Leaving the "Third World": Is Consumerism Transforming China?

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The 2008 Olympics illuminated Beijing's glaring prosperity driven by rapid growth in foreign direct investments and exports. On the other hand, China still receives hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from international agencies to battle pollution, deal with disaster and tackle endemic Third World poverty. (1) In spite of the fact that the CPC has now changed its constitution to allow entrepreneurs into the Party, this dichotomy has been viewed by many outside of China as the Chinese government's attempt to deliberately prevent the emergence of a middle class because of the threat such a class would pose to the One Party State's unity and stability. Those voices were loudest during the Clinton Administration's policy of de-linking the USA's economic agreements from issues of human rights abuses. Clinton policy, and largely those of other US leaders since him, seemed confident that, as the economy became more prosperous through using the export oriented model that delivered both economic and democratic results, the political will of the new emerging business class would steadily gain (if not demand) more voice in the political life of the nation. This apparently dated vision of some sort of Rostovian "take-off" development model failed to take into account the change in the political economy of emerging markets in this current age of globalization. (2) It furthermore seems to have underestimated the ability of the CPC to tap into the tremendous potential of the Chinese consumer. The old neo-liberal model describes individual consumer demand as a result of long-term mature market growth. This notion has had great appeal among First World leaders since the start of the post-colonial era, but assumes that the pattern followed by 19th century Europe is the only possible model to produce a sustainable advanced industrial economy that caters to the consumer.

In the wake of the Cold War when many of the features that previously defined a "tripartite" world order, China has moved toward an alternative route to a consumer economy. Asian "tigers" [Hong Kong, Taiwan, S. Korea, and Singapore] were hailed as high growth models using an export oriented approach. China initially followed this model in an effort to accumulate capital and stimulate production by using its greatest resource--its workforce. Few development economists in the 1980s and 1990s were predicting that a large, tightly controlled economy such as the PRC's could accomplish anything close to the "miracle" of the tigers' development. However China quickly became the world's workshop, much as it had been before the Industrial Revolution, and today is the world's second largest economy. In the process, China has also evolved into a multi-layered hybrid consumer economy influenced deeply by values from its earlier cultural history and by recent history as a semi-colonial country "liberated" by a communist revolution.

Scholars looking at earlier periods of Chinese history have highlighted the deep roots of Chinese consumerism, noting that since the Song Dynasty sophisticated regional and national markets catered to the demands for various qualities of cotton goods, cutlery, paper products, a wide variety of farm tools, various qualities of yarns, thread, fabrics and other items of daily use. Brand names were widely known and cost more than local competitive goods. (3) By the time of the First Opium War, China was already producing large quantities of processed tea, various grades of silks (many woven to specific design and specifications of European buyers), and a constant flow of porcelain. Indeed it was the balance of payments in China's favor that launched the sale of opium to reverse the flow of European hard currency (silver) and to force open more direct access to the sources of the goods being bought and hopefully also find willing consumers for the growing number of manufactured goods being produced in the industrial cities of the Europe and America. …

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