After the Pandemic, China’s Middle Class Re-Imagines the World

Unable to travel and consume abroad, some wealthy Chinese are “domesticating” their purchasing habits — and rethinking their place in the global community.

China’s weeklong National Day holiday — celebrated this year from Oct. 1 to Oct. 8 — seemed to offer further evidence, if any was needed, of the country’s post-pandemic economic recovery. With international travel largely off the table, China’s tourists flocked to Chinese tourism sites, bought tickets to Chinese films, and spent money in Chinese shops.

Although the recovery has been uneven, the country’s upper-middle class and above have enjoyed a particularly rapid rebound. But this doesn’t mean things are back to normal. The middle-class lifestyle in China has long incorporated aspects of what scholar Manfred Steger referred to as the global imaginary — that is, the belief that one belongs to a growing and increasingly connected global community. Now, stripped of the ability to travel and consume abroad, many middle-class Chinese are refocusing their attentions inward, while even the holdouts are starting to envision a very different post-coronavirus world.

Vivian Liang, a 30-year-old Shanghai-based consultant, half-jokingly complained to me that she has to buy her Hermès bags in China now. “I passed the mall the other day and saw people lined up in front of luxury brand stores like they were buying train tickets. It’s crazy!” With production down, imports delayed, and demand up, Liang says even getting access to less appealing products now requires buyers first pony up for peihuo — a reference to the unspoken rule that customers need to spend an almost equivalent amount on accessories in order to purchase a bag.

A rational consumer like Liang can walk away from these practices. But their prevalence is evidence that China’s upper middle class remains hungry for foreign luxury goods — and the identity they symbolize — despite the difficulties in procuring them.

China’s upper middle-class have for decades constructed their global imaginaries through the consumption of foreign goods. Partly because of distrust in domestic products, partly to flash their wealth, both middle-class consumers and their wealthier counterparts spend heavily on imports ranging from milk powder and cosmetics to luxury cars.

Although recent years have seen a rise in economic nationalism, with some consumers seeking to support domestic producers and brands, Liang’s experience suggests many middle-class Chinese aren’t willing to give up their international consumption habits just yet. Only now, instead of going abroad for them, Chinese consumers are trending toward what could be called “domesticated” international consumption. Continue to read the full article here


– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.