Learning to Want Things

Russell W. Belk, University of Utah
Non Zhou, University of Utah
[ to cite ]:
Russell W. Belk and Non Zhou (1987) ,"Learning to Want Things", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 478-481.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 478-481


Russell W. Belk, University of Utah

Non Zhou, University of Utah

An unprecedented and bold experiment in consumer behavior is presently being conducted with a billion consumers serving as subjects It is the reintroduction of a consumption ethic into Chinese society Under the policies of Deng Xiopeng's "market socialism," consumers are being allowed as well as encouraged to want things that would have been totally unthinkable at the time of Mao Zedong's death a decade ago.

Until the late 1970s China had followed a 30-year policy of income leveling, guaranteed work, subsidized necessities, and delay (if not renouncement) of consumption gratifications. A content analysis of the widely read official state newspapers, Liberation Army Daily and People's Daily found that self sacrifice and self abnegation were dominant theses during this period (Wang 1977). More specifically, the analysis revealed an emphasis on selfless dedication and self sacrifice as well as a willingness to forego private material gain and personal comfort (Wang 1977, p. 46) Policies also forbid private ownership of land, businesses, houses, or automobiles Travel outside of one's immediate area was largely forbidden Property could not be inherited and consumer credit did not exist. The wealthy were decried as "capitalist roaders". Advertising was limited to banners carrying state slogans like the following




In addition to these impediments to a consumer culture, China's 1979 per capita GNP of $253 ranked 101st of 150 countries and territories in the world (Berney 1981).

But about 1979 the great experiment began. Agricultural communes were broken up in favor of individual initiative farming. The "iron rice bowl" of total job security began to crumble and monetary wage incentives began to be introduced. Policies began to change from "to each according to his needs" to "to each according to his work" (Lee 1986). Small scale free enterprise was established. The ownership of houses and automobiles was allowed and inheritance was reinstituted. Advertising was begun in all media and the production and import of televisions was dramatically increased. Rather than being held up as "capitalist roaders", the wealthy were touted as virtuous successes. Incomes and income inequalities rose and by 1981, over 30 million Chinese were earning more than 8 times the national average income (Berney 1981). The austere banners and billboards of the preceding decades were replaced by markedly different slogans such as:






Consumer Desires

Such changes have had a sudden and dramatic impact on Chinese consumers' material desires. During the time of the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong, the "three bigs" in Chinese consumption aspirations were a bicycle, wristwatch, and a manual sewing machine. However, by 1982 in urban areas of China there were 2.49 wristwatches, 1.47 bicycles, and .74 sewing machines for every household (Walder 1983). Furthermore, it has been estimated that half of all Chinese households now own at least one of these former "three bigs" (Weil 1982). As a result a new three bigs have been developed involving a refrigerator, washing machine, and television set (Church 1986) Others have suggested a "new big six" that adds cassette recorders, electric fans, and motorcycles (Jones, et al. 1985) and the "Eight New Things" that changes television sets to color television sets and adds cameras and video recorders to the set of consumption aspirations (Reiss 1986). In relatively affluent Guangzhou, a recent survey found that 92% of households owned a television set (Stafford and Tong 1986). Another study of upscale Chinese executives found that over 75 percent owned wristwatches, radios, clocks, sewing machines, and bicycles and more than 30 percent owned cameras, electric fans, and tape recorders and used perfumes and cosmetics (Thorelli 1985). Even peasants have been found to want better bicycles, color television sets to replace black and white sets, and travel (Wen Hui Bao 1983) Clothing fashions are rapidly changing also as the so-called Mao jacket (actually popularized by Sun Yat-sen - Kronholz 1983, You 1983) disappears. Although an automobile is still out of the question for all but a few Chinese, the purchase of foreign cars and trucks has taken enough currency out of the economy that a two year ban on such purchases had to be enacted (Lin 1985). In addition, while they have suffered similar set backs in their joint venture with China recently (Lord 1986), American Motors (producing Jeeps in Beijing) is hoping that "people will get off their bicycles and get onto motorbikes. And then they will get into cars" (Jones, et al. 1985, p. 56)

What is happening in China is not so different from escalating consumption aspirations in other increasingly affluent societies.

For instance, after its industrial devastation in World War II, Japan began with a wish list (called the three sacred treasures after the legendary Japanese treasures of mirror, sword, and jewel) of television, washing machine, and refrigerator in the 1950s. By the 1960s this list had become a color television, car, and air conditioning (the "three Cs; Fukutake 1974, 1982). And by the 1970s it was suggested that the Japanese consumer aspired to own a summer cottage, electric oven, and central heating (Cleaver 1976). If such escalating consumption aspirations can be generalized, the new big six and the eight new things may be only the beginning in China This is all the more plausible given China's plans to emerge from the third world and follow the prosperous path of Asian neighbors South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore (Mann 1986).

Taiwan in fact is an interesting point of comparison. Per capita income in China is now approximately what it was in Taiwan during a 1969 survey of consumer durables ownership and aspirations there (Freedman 1972). At that time the average Taiwan household ownership of watches, bicycles, sewing machines, televisions, refrigerators, and lashing machines was lower than that of China today in each case Contemporary Chinese consumption aspirations and purchasing plans are also more ambitious than the 1969 Taiwanese. Direct comparisons are difficult because of decreased costs for some items like televisions and Chinese subsidization of a number of basic living costs. But at least superficially it appears that (incredibly) communist China may be becoming at least as materialistic as capitalist Taiwan. One incentive to do so say be relative comparisons with surrounding nations. In 1969 Taiwanese consumers were relatively well off compared to Chinese consumers. Present PRC Chinese consumers feel relatively deprived compared Chinese in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Those PRC Chinese near Hong Kong or with relatives in Hong Kong, Taiwan, or the west have known of these differences in consumption levels for some time But comparisons are now more striking for all of China One cause is increased exposure to foreign television, film, and advertising (Keyfitz 1982, O'Guinn, Lee, and Faber 1986). With increased travel in and out of China, more Chinese have seen other nations or at least have seen the consumption by tourists from other nations (Boulton 1979, Pringle 1985). Modern local hotels and other facilities springing up to cater to foreign tourists in China are another source that highlights differences in consumption levels, and the Great Wall Hotel in Beijing must now keep out curious locals. Even without direct access to tourist facilities, consumption aspirations are affected by such symbols that create dreams by their visible presence, as well as through those Chinese who visit and work there (Schell 1984, p. 133).

In addition to comparisons to other nations, there is increasing room for relative comparisons of consumption standards within China. With increasing income disparity in China (Deng Xiopeng--Selected Works 1983 - says it is alright to make some people rich first, so as to lead all the people to wealth"), there are increasing evidences of the red eye disease (envy) in China. This has led in some cases to poorer peasants attacking or sabotaging their better off neighbors (Jones, et al. 1984). But according to some, in addition to such anti-social acts, envy is also believed to potentially spur attempts to catch up through work and consumption (Sabini and Silver 1982).

There are other spurs to consumer desires in China as well Demographically China is undergoing its third baby boom since 1949 (Qian 1983) Twenty-five percent of the Chinese population (born in the 1950s and 1960s) is in its child bearing years at a time when government policy mandates only a single child per family (Ren and Yue 1983). Also reducing family size is increased geographic mobility which results in fewer extended families living together. With only one child to support, families have more to spend on children This has frequently resulted in competitive pampering of children with material goods among neighboring families (China Reconstructs, 1983). There is also growth in the increasingly leisure-oriented retired segment of the population (Statistical Bureau of the People's Republic of China 1982, Beijing Review 1983). And a sharp increase in two-worker households since the cultural revolution is also adding additional consumption power for the Chinese (Chen and Taylor 1982). At the same time, the Chinese have increased the priority of consumer goods production by emphasizing the modernization of so-called light industry even over heavy industry. Increased income, a growing economy, and more and better consumer goods all combine to fuel consumer desire in China. Scarcities remain the major barrier to consumption in many cases and have caused an increase in consumer savings despite increases in consumer desires (People's Daily 1983 1984).


In the 1950s Riesman and Rosenborough (1955) described a "standard package" of goods that then constituted a uniquely American set of consumption aspirations. More recently it has been suggested that there has emerged a world-wide standard package that consists of "a home, automobile, and the means to do some traveling; within the house must be electric lighting, a refrigerator, and a television set" (Keyfitz 1982, p. 661). For each of these items with the exception of automobiles, there has been rapid expansion into the Chinese economy in the 1980s. It appears clear that China is adopting a world class set of consumer wants. Because it has developed these wants so rapidly and against such a dramatic contrast to the austerity of the cultural revolution, the questions that seldom get asked when development of consumption proceeds more slowly are being raised as the eyes of the Chinese and the world focus on the grand experiment taking place there.


One such question concerns the impact of the changes taking place in China in what might be called consumer culture at a societal level or materialism at an individual level. The issue of what impact increased consumption will have on Chinese well-being is potentially moderated by the effects of increased consumption on health on one hand and materialism on the other hand. Boulding (1985) finds that there is a positive relationship between per capita income and health (longevity) until about $2000; after that there is virtually no effect. By this criterion, Chinese consumers can benefit substantially from further increases in income and consumption. However, psychological well-being is another matter that oust be considered in light of studies suggesting that higher materialism is associated with lower feelings of happiness and well-being (Belk 1985).

There are many evidences of materialism (heightened emphasis on material goods as a supposed source of satisfaction and dissatisfaction in life) in China since Mao (Gelb 1985). The desire for individualism appears to be increasing (Nevis 1983). Despite, or perhaps because of, shortages of many goods, preference for high status brands, especially foreign brands, is high (Wortzel 1983). In addition there is interest in owning certain types of products because of the social status they convey. These include televisions (Rohter 1982), household help (Schell 1984), motorcycles, fashionable clothing, cosmetics, perfumes (Gladstone), hot running water, inside toilets (Mann 1986), and gold jewelry (Kronholz 1983). Other evidences include the counterfeiting of popular bicycle brands (Weil 1982) and a recent fad of wearing imported sunglasses with the label tags still attached (Curry 1981) Property crimes are also taken to be a reflection of the increasingly materialistic atmosphere in modern China (Kelly 1986). Such materialism is all the more striking in a country that for the past 30 years before 1979 had pursued classlessness and which grew out of the sort of class struggle called for by Karl Marx.

This irony has not gone unnoticed by the Chinese people. One result has been skepticism about the permanence of the consumer culture beginning to appear in the country. The wealthy farmers who were to be feted at t banquet celebrating those earning 10,000 yuan (about $3125) per year, were reluctant to attend because they feared they were being singled out for citicism (Schell 1984). Similarly, some of the new wealthy are joining the communist party, not because it commands the respect it once did, but because it seems to be a hedge against the fear that property may be confiscated again in the future (Schell 1984). These fears seem increasingly remote, but are not entirely without basis. During 1982 and 1983 there was a temporary reversion to less capitalistic policies in an attempt to rid China of the "spiritual pollution" of capitalism. Laws were passed banning advertising of foreign cigarettes and liquor, as well as sexiness in advertising, and frivolous or luxurious products of the West (Anderson 1983). Citizens in Guangtong province were ordered to take town television antennas capable of pulling in signals from nearby Hong Kong and were warned against the "decadence and 'moral bankruptcy' of the capitalist West" (Curry 1982). Wage incentives were temporarily abandoned in favor of the "spiritual incentives" of the cultural revolution (Walter 1983).

While such reverses were short-lived, they reflect some ambivalent feelings toward materialism by the Chinese. One article in Zhongguo Shehui Kexue (1981) indicated concern that Chins was headed toward a culture of two-car families like the United States. The Chinese minister of culture spoke out in Renmin Ribao (1983) against "performances that propagandized for violent things that were depraved and sexual in nature, and in stinking bourgeois life-styles dedicated to nothing more than having a good time, drinking, resting, and hedonism" (quoted in Schell 1984, p. 172). A clerk in China worried about her children They want to buy more things than Ye can afford, This is not good. In the past, everyone knew that we were poor. Now there is the illusion that we are rich. But we aren't" (Burstein 1981). And a 1980 Beijing Review cover story somewhat wishfully concluded: Obviously people here have not yet begun to go in for consumption and wasteful habits, chase after money or worship possessions. This is a thing we are happy about because a consumer society is not necessarily a society which brings people happiness. What many a Chinese wishes to see is a comfortably off, yet simple and honest society (Beijing Review, 1980, quoted in Anderson 1984)

The Marketing Concept and Consumer Wants

As was found to be true in Nigeria (Mitchell 1984), the seller's market conditions in modern China do not preclude allegiance to the marketing concept of designing offerings to meet consumer desires. As one provincial vice governor said, '-The purpose of socialist production is to meet the needs of the people" (Liu 1982). Both marketing research and the decentralization and deregulation of the Chinese market place are designed to help make this happen. And state businesses that fail to produce marketable products are now being shut down for the first time (Chin 1986). Most Western scholars of marketing would applaud such actions evidencing an interest in applying the marketing concept to serving consumer wants and needs. However, at least three ma; or objections may be raised concerning the use of this concept, either in China or elsewhere.

One problem noted by Hirschman (1983) is that the marketing concept may stifle creative innovation and artistry Relying on what consumers say they want is dangerous in art and in other areas of consumption involving innovation and creativity. Consumers generally lack the knowledge of technical feasibility possessed by engineers and architects and the artistic vision of artists and designers. Furthermore, to rely on consumer desires alone in such cases is to remove from these specialists the application of their unique talents to create It is dreadful to contemplate the art that would replace the Picasso statue in Chicago's Daly Plaza if the design had been based upon a survey of consumer desires.

A second problem with the marketing concept is that it assumes that consumers know what they want and can and will communicate these desires. This is often incorrect. In the case of fashion goods, ACR fellow Bill Wells once asked if a man could have foretold his use of the hairdryer before other men began to adopt it or whether a woman could have forecast her skirt length for the coming year before seeing what was in fashion. Even when consumers know what they want, they may be unable or unwilling to communicate this information. Those who can and will communicate their desires, say for a new motion picture, may not be representative of those who can't or won't do so.

A third, and perhaps more devastating, problem with the marketing concept is that it assumes that what consumers want is good for them. If we really believed this to be true we would have to face an open market for heroin, machine guns, and slavery, a negligible market for parks, safe vehicles, and non-polluting factories, and a chaotic market resulting from the optional provision of fire protection, police services, and a military. While no society is willing to subscribe to such consequences, they would follow from total adherence to the marketing concept. Surely the marketing concept has some positive consequences for both consumers and society. The question is where to draw the line.


It is clear that consumer wan :8 are growing rapidly in the People' s Republic of China, and that because of this unprecedented event, China represents the greatest experiment in consumer behavior to ever be conducted. This paper has attempted to document some of the changes taking place and the issues that these changes involve. Growing materialism is one such issue The underlying question is whether some of the disfunctions of increased materialism will cancel the benefits to be achieved from an enhanced standard of living for the Chinese. The other major issue raised is how much adherence to the marketing concept is desirable in China The PRC is now struggling with decisions about whether to allow increased pornography from Hong Kong, marshall arts movies from Japan, popular music from Taiwan, and fashions from the U S.. Adherence to the marketing concept would suggest allowing such goods, but attempting to provide people with what is good for them may suggest the prohibition or restriction of at least some of these goods As the discussion above indicates, the Chinese are certainly aware of such issues There are also economic factors involved concerning balance of payments, rate of savings, and inflation. But the basic consumer question involved is what will increase consumer well being It will be extremely interesting to examine the decisions that emerge and their effects Still in terms of learning to want things, the effects of the decisions already made may be irreversible The government slogan "Look Forward" is now translated by many to mean "Look for Money".


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