Creating the Chinese Consumer
The roots of today’s consumer revolution lie in the late 1970s, when the Chinese state began to implement a variety of policies that would radically transform Chinese society. Themost important of these were the economic reforms which followed Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power in 1978, the political crackdown following Tiananmen, and the one-child family policiesof the 1980s and 1990s. Not only did the economic reforms provide the means and impetus to theastounding economic growth which followed – growth which has averaged over 8 percentannually
for more than 25 years! – they also began to transform China’s collectivist society intoa much more individualistic one. During the 1980s and 1990s the state gradually transformedChina’s planned economy to a market-based one. Beginning with a relatively minor tax reformand rural decollectivization in the late 1970s, the state sharply accelerated the reform in 1984 andagain in 1992, when Deng Xiaoping called on China to build a “socialist market economy” whichwould allow China to catch up with the “Four Dragons” of East Asia.
At the same time, the stategradually disassembled China’s collectivist society, reducing subsidies for housing and pensions,abolishing the life-long employment system, and reforming the citizen registration system,measures which served to further increase the economic individualism and social mobility of theChinese populace.
Tourism, which would soon prove to be an important part of the state’s developmentstrategy, received special attention. 1978 saw China’s first national conference on tourism, whilethe following year Deng Xiaoping gave no less than four major speeches on the importance of thetourist industry to China’s future economic growth.
According to Deng, tourism would allowChina to make use of its remarkable historical, cultural, and natural riches to generate income,especially much-needed foreign exchange. It would also provide direct and indirect employmentin a variety of tourist-dependent or tourist-related sectors; invite and promote direct foreigninvestment in buildings and infrastructure; and train the Chinese people in the skills necessary to provide foreign tourists with a quality touristic experience. Additionally, tourism could serve as a“signifier” of the new openness of the Chinese state, society, and economy in the post-Mao era.
And while at first the Chinese tourist industry was largely oriented to international tourism, in thelate 80s and early 90s that began to change, as state leaders increasingly saw the importance of domestic tourism to China’s economic growth, and began to develop the policies and institutionsnecessary to promote it.
Although such changes helped to set the stage for today’s consumerism, it was theTiananmen Square events which really forced the state to embrace and even encourage thegrowth of mass consumption. There was at first considerable ambivalence about doing so, as state
United Nations Development Programme,
Human Development Report 2004
Joseph Fewsmith, “Plan Versus Market: China’s Socialist Market Economy”, in Christopher Hudson,
(Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997), pp. 97-108, esp. 101-105.
China: The Consumer Revolution
(New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1998), p. 5.
Honggen Xiao, “The Discourse of Power: Deng Xiapoing and tourism development in China”,
27 (2006) pp. 803-814; also see Trevor H.B. Sofield and Fung Mei Sarah Li, “TourismDevelopment and Cultural Policies in China”,
, vol. 25 no. 2, pp. 362-392.
Scenic Spots: Chinese Tourism, the State, and Cultural Authority
(Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), chapter 1, pp. 5-6.