Special Session Summary the Chinese Consumer Revolution

Russell W. Belk, University of Utah
[ to cite ]:
Russell W. Belk (2002) ,"Special Session Summary the Chinese Consumer Revolution", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 339-341.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 339-341



Russell W. Belk, University of Utah


There have been three momentous revolutions in contemporary China. The first is the Communist Revolution of 1948. The second is the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. And the third is the Consumer Revolution that began in the late 1970s and continues to gain strength daily. In terms of the number of lives affected, the tumultuousness of the changes precipitated, and their global impact, these are arguably the most significant revolutions in human history. The pace of the consumption changes taking place in urban China is unprecedented and the impact of these changes are dramatic, even though China remains steadfast in describing itself as a socialist country, adding the familiar addendum that this is socialism with a Chinese character. The title of recent books suggest that nothing short of revolution is satisfactory for describing the changes in consumption practices stemming from the market economy wrought by Deng Xiopeng and his successors: The Consumer Revolution in Urban China (Davis 2000), China: The Consumer Revolution (Li 1998), The New Rich in Asia: Mobile Phones, McDonald’s and Middle-Class Revolution (Robinson and Goodman 1996). But compared to the consumer revolution that historians are coming to realize accompanied the Industrial Revolution in the West, the Chinese consumer revolution is taking place at a much faster pace.

In light of such changes, the presentations in this session addressed the state of current consumption in the People’s Republic of China. The use of video in two presentations (and still images in the third) also helped the audience visualize the contemporary consumption situation in China. All three presentations were based on interpretive studies. Veeck, Williams and Jiang presented an ethnographic study of the privileges and pressures faced by China’s "little emperors" who have become the norm since the implementation of a one-child policy in China. The study was based on their fieldwork from Yangzhou. Piron and Jianfeng presented and narrated a videotape of their study of possessions in rural and urban households in Northern China. Emphasis was placed on traditional versus contemporary consumer goods in these homes. And Belk and Zhou presented a videotape focusing on the reacions of educated Shenzhen residents to a sample of local and non-local Chinese print and television ads, with some of the television ads included in the video.

Discussion leader, Gnliz Ger, helped raise questions about the studies and the issues they addressed, including the extent to which China and Chinese values can be treated as a whole rather than regionally and within various segments of Chinese society. She also suggested that some current emphases, such as the focus on education within the current generation of only children, has older roots in the literati tradition within China. And she asked whether materialism could be properly inferred from an emphasis on possessions. There was an enthusiastic discussion that addressed such issues as what constitutes global versus local advertising, methodological considerations, and the focus of Chinese consumers in different generations on the past, present, and future.



Ann Veeck, Western Michigan University

Laura A. Williams, Louisiana Tech University

Naihua Jiang, Yangzhou University

During the same period in which P.R.China has been experiencing its dazzling economic growth, a generation of only children has been growing up in Chinese cities, the outcome of China’s one-child-per-family policy instituted in 1979. The popular myth, perpetuated in both Western and Chinese media, is that, receiving the undivided attention of four grandparents and two parents (4-2-1 zonghe or the "4-2-1 syndrome"), these only children are overindulged, pampered, and spoiled. At the same time, in the face of growing social and professional freedoms, these only children also singularly bear all of the dreams and aspirations of their families. This leads to the question of whether these children are actually growing up as the most spoiled generation in China’s long history or, alternately, the most pressured.

Based on fieldwork conducted in Yangzhou, this study explores the intersection between the "pampering" of only children and the academic pressures that they simultaneously endure. The research methods involved a series of market observations and extensive interviews with ten families in their homes. In addition, three focus groups were conducted with 27 parents recruited through preschools, primary schools and secondary school. This research examines the nature and context of consumption activities undertaken by and/or for children to study whether they are meant to provide for children’s personal pleasure or to enhance their family’s current and future standing.

The findings suggest a complex story, with the pampering and pressuring of children closely intertwined. As children grow older, material indulgences become increasingly inseparable from financial investments. Many parents of preschool children admit that their children receive generous allocations of snacks and toys. However, once the urban children enter primary schools, a strict academic regimen often begins, with the vast majority of the children’s waking time spent on academics, including homework, tutoring, private lessons, and independent study. While, as been suggested in other studies (e.g. China Daily 1998; Davis and Sensenbrenner 2000; McNeal and Yeh 1997) parents spend a large amount of their income on their only children, the bulk of that money is invested in education, including tuition payments, tutoring, educational supplies, and books. As the father of a 12-year-old son stated: "We will give him what he wants, only if he wants something to help him with his studies. Otherwise, we won’t get it forhim." In addition, while many parents admit that their children dictate where the family will go on family excursions, the strict rationing of free time to these young scholars means that these occasions are, in fact, often limited to the few national holidays. As the mother of a 17-year-old said, "The places we go are decided by my daughter unless her idea is unreasonable. We usually do what she wants because she has so little spare time".

The findings also suggest support for what James McNeal calls the "compensation syndrome," or the phenomenon in which because the parents grew up with limited consumption alternatives, they take pleasure in being able to provide their children with the goods that they never had (Crowell and Hsieh 1995). It is true that many parents seem pleased that they are able to provide their children with higher material standards than they endured as children. This notion of "compensation syndrome," however, seems even more compelling within the context of academic and professional expectations. Many parents discuss the lack of educational opportunity and professional choice that were available when they came of age and assert that they want much more for their children. These parental aspirations are closely linked with their children’s responsibilities to work hard to achieve lofty educational goals. The following comment by the father of a 10-year-old is typical: "I hope my son will go to a prestigious university, but it depends completely on his effort. If he studies hard, he can do it."

In many of the consumption incidents in which the only children appear pampered, the subplots of these indulgences reinforce the responsibilities of the children to distinguish themselves academically. Parents state that they often parcel out treats, in the form of goods or entertainment, as rewards for hard work. A typical statement from a parent was that after a long day of study, her child deserves a treat of ice cream or shrimp chips. With older children, the rewards often turn into bribes, with the children receiving extra money or privileges for acceptable academic performance. In one example, the father of an 18-year-old described how the family selected their location for a family vacation as follows: "When my son took the test to be admitted to high school, he received a score of 609. This was a point less than we expected. If he had scored 610 or more we would have gone to Qingdao, but since he scored lower we went to Suzhou."

Altogether, these and other findings suggest that while reports of the enormous purchase influence of Chinese children are not inaccurate, and while families often indulge their children for reasons of pure pleasure, it is important to understand children’s consumption activities within the context of family obligation. While this new generation is growing up with unprecedented professional opportunities, it is also facing intense competition and an insecure economic future. Being their families’ sole progenies, these urban youngsters often face acute pressure to "be successful" with the hope that success in school will translate to success in life. In 2001, as the first cohort of only children are becoming adults and entering the job market, a major question will be to what extent they can fulfill the ideals and aspirations of their parents and to what extent the work room mirrors the school room.



Francis Piron, Nanyang University

Wang Jianfeng, Nanyang University

For centuries, China has intrigued outsiders. Its recent economic opening and development have stimulated the distribution and consumption of all sorts of goods. Visitors to Chinese cities will find their favorite brands readily available in the outlets of international chains. With increasing income, urban consumers have now access to the same consumer goods as their Western counterparts. Away from the urban centers, one billion Chinese consumers have little or nothing to consume. With often very limited distribution of consumer goods priced similarly as in the cities, rural Chinese and their smaller income are seriously lagging in consumption ability and opportunities.

Our study offers the session audience an opportunity to visit six urban and six rural households where we were permitted to videotape and document the totality of each one’s worldly possessions. Qualitative approaches to consumer behavior and expressions of materialism have been tested in Western environments (e.g., Wallendorf and Arnould 1988), more traditional cultures (Groves and Belk 1995; Wallendorf and Arnould 1988), and developing countries (Belk 2000). We base our discussion on tables and lists of possessions made during our fieldwork, as well as from the review of the videos we made.

There was some variation in the Beijing households: most were well furnished and residents comfortably enjoyed modern electrical and electronic appliances, along with well-stocked wardrobes and decorative items. Homes were personalized through selection of these goods from a large and increasing variety of goods available in the marketplace.

The picture was quite different in the rural Yang Shuo area, in north central Guan Xi province. At one extreme, we documented a household with a used black and white television set and a gas cooker as the sole "modern" possessions of a family of six. Mr. Mao’s household was in no way atypical of that of other residents of Lang Sher village. The family’s other possessions included two older wooden bed frames and lots of empty bottles waiting to be taken to the local market (a two-hour boat ride down river) for cash.

At the other extreme of rural wealth, we met Ms. Xu who had just moved into her own sparsely furnished bedroom in a new two-story building in the back of her ancestral home. Six years ago, Ms. Xu’s home was connected to the village’s power line by a lonely wire that split electricity between a television set and a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling, the family’s only consumer products. Now, the home is equipped with a telephone and meals are cooked and eaten in a lit-up kitchen on a gas stove. As a tourist guide, Ms. Xu has a Yahoo! e-mail account and a pager. She dreams of her own handphone. Yet, she only works two months a year and cannot afford the consumer products so conspicuous in the cities.

In sum, our study provides a glimpse into the wide spectrum of China’s consumer market through 12 comprehensive videographic exposTs of these households’ possessions. With a huge, undeveloped rural base, China’s consumer growth will be limited to confined urban areas for some time to come.



Russell Belk, University of Utah

Nan Zhou, City University of Hong Kong

Between 1949 and 1978 the "advertising" in China was mostly patriotic banners and posters urging people to work and sacrifice for glorious revolution. Since that period both the amount of advertising and the ability to read and view advertising have increased dramatically in China. Coupled with an infusion of foreign brands and the partial use of Westrn actors, words, and images in these ads, one superficial interpretation would be that Chinese advertising is heavily globalized, Westernized, and Americanized. But there is increasing evidence that the inevitable rise of global brands and advertising need not mean that local brands and advertising are disappearing, nor that global brands and advertising mean the same thing in different local cultures (e.g., Ger 1999; Ger and Belk 1996; Liebes and Katz 1990; Miller 1990; Wilk 1993). With economic development fascination with prominent foreign goods as emblems of modernity and sophistication, tends to give way over time to domestic pride and increasingly strong attachment to local brands and appeals (Zhou and Belk 1993).

We employ qualitative videography to examine the relative attractiveness of global and local appeals in Chinese advertising. Both local and multinational firms have the ability to associate their products with images that are strongly Chinese or with images that are strongly global. We selected both current magazine and television advertising that emphasizes one of the other of these appeals in a short set of product categories. We then showed these ads to 40 Chinese consumers and probed their impressions of each of the ads and brands. These interviews were videotaped along with some of in-situ television viewing by informants. We find that there is a tendency to favor global imagery in certain product categories and to favor local imagery in others. The video presents both ads and "reader" response interviews about them, and draws some conclusions about the types of products where global or local appeals tend to be relatively more attractive.

Virtually all prior analyses of Chinese advertising have been based on content analyses of themes and techniques employed in the ads. But content says nothing about how the targets of this advertising interpret and to these ads. By going beyond the content of ads to ask how they are "read," obtain both a deeper and more revealing understanding about how global and local advertising appeals work. We also used content to consider what it is that leads to an ad and a brand being seen as local or global. Relevant factors include settings, actors, colors, music, language, script, type of translation, and global or national rituals, behaviors, icons, and holidays. Through the use of these variables global brands can be made to appear local and local brands can be made to appear global. Whether or not such strategies are beneficial in terms of the images that audiences form of these brands is something we explore in this presentation. We find that to appear Chinese is a greater benefit for some types of products than others. In considering why this is so, we offer some initial understandings of how brand symbolism affects Chinese consumers and how they make certain brands a part of their lives.


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