Tuesday, Apr 25, 2017, 6:56 AM CST – China

Essay

What do Chinese People Want?

“I wish I could do what you do.”

Illustration by Xiang Zhaohui

These days everyone is wrestling with this question. With global markets in freefall, elections in America, a leadership transition in China and territorial scuffles with Japan, the stakes seem especially high this year. 

Figuring out what China wants, or, more precisely, what the Chinese want, can help companies sell smartphones, help nations balance trade deficits and help neighbors avoid escalating conflicts. I myself – as a Chinese person schooled abroad - find it hard to decipher the complex whims of the Chinese consumer. I imagine it must be an even tougher nut to crack for multinational companies, political observers, or artists and writers who are struggling to produce precisely the right product for a vast, and infinitely diverse, market.

Looking for answers in the media, Western or Chinese, just muddies the waters. Nowadays, I get most of my local news from reading Weibo – China’s Twitter equivalent. It’s the fastest, and most haphazardly censored, way to get information in such a rigorously-controlled media environment. But the daily barrage of sordid tales detailing the injustices inflicted upon the good, hardworking masses at the hands of unscrupulous companies or the rich and powerful elites serves only to depress, rarely to enlighten.

This year, I decided that the best way to find out what Chinese people want in an age of seemingly morally-bankrupt materialism is simply to ask them. So, I took to the road, visiting as many small cities, towns, and villages as I could in an attempt to break out of my natural comfort zone and to meet with the poor as well as the wealthy. 

What did I find out? For a start, never take a train with a four-digit train number and tickets that go for 39 yuan. (If you do, expect ludicrous overcrowding, no AC and squat toilets). Another insight? Prepare snack packs when planning to stay in a city that even McDonald’s hasn’t discovered. 

One more thing, if there are no “foreign” hotels in town (i.e. three stars or more), expect to end up in a “business hotel” where Wi-Fi is emphatically not an option but a mini-bar selection of birth control choices is. Despite the discomforts of domestic travel, I was happy with what I found. What Chinese people want is not that different from what Americans, Europeans, and people around the world want. While there are those who will disagree, people want freedoms, both small and big. A group of twentysomethings told me, “We want to decide what to do with our hard-earned money. We want to buy cars without having to wait [License plates for private car owners are distributed variously by lottery and auction in several major cities].” More than one Weibo friend has complained that they don’t want their tweets “harmonized” overnight (i.e. deleted by Web censors).

People want safety and security, not just at border crossings but in the home and in the workplace. Nobody wants to live in fear of unemployment, illness, disability or crippling debt. Where some Western observers see a “real estate bubble,” I see a “private welfare plan.” With abysmal real interest rates, a nascent social security system, and few investment options, owning an apartment is the Chinese person’s best shot at security. However, over 90 percent of urban Chinese are now priced way, way out of the housing market, while millions of luxurious condos sit empty in the rapacious hands of speculators.

Chinese people, despite frequent Western assertions to the contrary, want to connect with the world outside. This is tough, especially for those who have little chance of securing a visa to travel abroad (poor, rural citizens, or anyone who can’t produce the onerous paperwork demanded) or without the necessary language skills to experience much more than a chaperoned coach trip around the great shopping malls in Europe and America as marketed by Chinese tour operators. Perhaps buying designer handbags at exorbitant prices is just an easier way to relate to the rest of the world. Chinese people want to know that they can make global consumer choices, and delight in making them.

Above all, people want self-actualization, many without even being able to put a word to it. This is the strongest sentiment I felt through my travels and conversations. In a system that still rigidly separates people by their birthplace through an antiquated system of household registration, and that doesn’t generate enough fulfilling jobs for young graduates, never mind those without a college diploma, what people told me most often was, “I wish I could do what you do.” 

The most memorable meeting I had was a chat with a country girl who worked as a masseuse at a seedy hotel. I asked her what her dream job was. “I’d like to work in an office, like girls I see on TV. I don’t know what exactly they do, but it must be interesting.”

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