The dramatic social, economic and cultural changes that have been taking place in China over the past fifteen years have been attracting more and more attention from commentators in the West.footnote The old order maintained by stringent state control over the economy and everyday life has been gradually but decisively broken up by the market forces which were introduced at the end of the 1970s as a remedy for the perceived failure of Mao’s egalitarian socialism. Interpretations of these events by those on the Left tend to be motivated by their concern for the fate of socialism in China.footnote1 This focus, however, tends to miss a crucial link between existing capitalism and socialism. Both are true heirs of the Enlightenment and its illegitimate child, instrumental reason. Both are devoted to the same end—material progress. This crucial link is often absent from the theoretical visions formed by the legacy of the Cold War which played with and thrived upon the apparent differences between the two armed camps. In today’s China, pragmatism has triumphed over other ideologies; the quintessence of this stance is captured in Deng Xiaoping’s ‘cat theory’—‘it does not matter whether the cat is white or black, as long as it catches the mice, it is a good cat.’ For most people, it no longer matters whether the cat is ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ or ‘capitalism with Confucian colours’. As long as it works for China’s development, it is regarded as a ‘good-ism’—hao zhuyi.

Ever since the idea of progress, invented some 250 years ago in a cold corner of Western Europe, conquered the imagination of the rest of the world through violence and enticement, the frenzied pursuit of modernization has become a central concern for the so-called ‘Third World’. Modernity, the most formidable achievement of the West, questioned and criticized at home since its inception, remains a potent dreamland for the rest of the world. The vision of many cultural and political elites in poor countries has been so dazzled by its powerful display that their imagination of other possibilities for development has been seriously blunted. The focus of developmental energies has been placed on economic growth and ‘progress’ is measured in terms of wealth generation. If the price paid for pioneering modernity by the West has been compensated for by the bounties of colonialism, the price paid or to be paid by the ‘Third World’ countries is still to be calculated. The history of desperately seeking modernity has been littered with sufferings, failures, frustrations, and disasters.footnote2

China has been one of the century’s most determined bidders for modernity. Her failures, more than her successes, have been among the most dramatic. In the game of ‘catching up with the West’, various strategies have been tried by successive regimes since the mid-nineteenth century, swinging between Westernisation and traditionalism, capitalism and socialism, isolationism and open-door policies. The apparent difference between these various attempts, reflected and buttressed by the ideologies of the time, should not obscure the continuity in the central theme—building a strong, modern Chinese nation capable of fending off Western encroachment—an agenda initially set by a few reform-minded comprador bureaucrats after the Qing government lost the Opium War with Britain in 1842.footnote3 Hence the recent strategy adopted by the post-Mao government, based on market reforms and opening up to the West, has to be understood in the light of China’s long bid for modernization and national salvation.

At the moment, this initiative seems to be working miracles. The ‘rise of China’ has been widely hailed as the most significant change defining the global power structure of the next century. China has the world’s fastest growing economy. This growth spurt has led to a remarkable rise in people’s living standards. Official statistics show that since 1978, the year when the programme of economic reform was launched, average incomes have grown more than six-fold in rural areas and tripled in urban areas.footnote4 Although these figures say little about the distribution of the newly created wealth, they are a powerful sign that China is in the midst of a series of qualitative historical changes, and perhaps is making her final leap towards the ‘dreamland of modernity’. This present piece, however, is not meant as a eulogy to China’s remarkable achievements. These are freely available to anyone who wants to look. Rather, it is intended as an exploration of the overt and hidden problems that these statistics conceal. The central problem addressed here is the rise of a rampant mass consumerism, one of the most obvious, though unintended, consequences of the attempt at modernization through privatization and the free market. The post-Mao government’s commitment to economic pragmatism seems to be paying off in that an increasing number of Chinese have rushed to join the ranks of consumers in the 1990s.

Systematic analyses and critiques of mass consumption in the West can be dated back to the rise of the modern mass consumer society in the United States around the turn of the century. But it was not until more recently, in the last ten years or so, that consumption and consumerism have become central issues in academic debates centring around the key concept of postmodernity and the changing nature of Western society.footnote5 As is pointed out in much current work on globalisation, mass consumption is no longer the exclusive preserve of the Western world. Yet arguably, the rise of the ‘Far East’ as an economic power in the last two decades has lead to new kinds of consumerism which Western critical social theories cannot fully make sense of. In the case of post-Mao China, what I shall call ‘Confucian consumerism’, for lack of a better phrase, deserves critical and immediate attention. I will begin by tracing its rise and then look at its social and psychological roots in the puritan communism of Mao’s China. The ‘window effect’ of the example of more affluent neighbours, though not the focus of analysis here, should nevertheless not be overlooked. Influences from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and to a lesser extent, Singapore, are particularly important because of their shared cultural ancestry with China. Then I will look at unequal consumption as a result of the widening gap between the rich and the poor in the 1990s, paying particular attention to the conspicuous consumption of the ‘new economic elites’. Finally, I will try to draw out some of the social, political and environmental implications of this current wave of mass consumption, and raise a few doubts about national development and modernization generally. The problems are serious, but solutions are even harder to find.

The rampant fashion in which consumerism seems to have been embraced by Chinese society has to be seen in the light of the country’s immediate past experience of puritan communism. The adoption of the Soviet model of industrialization in the early 1950s, which privileged heavy industry at the expense of consumer products, had serious implications for people’s material life. Individual consumption was sacrificed for the nation’s primitive capital accumulation and the provision of consumer goods was kept at the basic level required for the reproduction of labour power.

The Party made strenuous efforts to inculcate a ‘correct’ proletarian lifestyle of ‘hard work and plain living’ (jianku pusu), and promoted a range of living or deceased models for emulation. People were called upon to tighten their belts as food was rationed. Fashion, regarded as bourgeois in origin and surplus to authentic human needs, was for many years more or less abolished, which turned China into a country of people dressed in grey, black, white, army green, and navy blue—the colour scheme of Chinese puritan communism. Ill-fed and poorly dressed, people were nevertheless expected to take pride in the nation’s collective achievements in satellite technology and atomic power. Basic products were manufactured for basic necessities and no luxury could be justified. The most costly consumer durables a family could own up to the late 1970s were wrist-watches, sewing machines and bicycles. Indeed, consumption beyond the limit set by the Party could be condemned as a sign of a corrupt and despicable bourgeois life style. Extravagance was a constant target of social criticism.