Lecture focuses on China’s consumer revolution

by David Anderson

When Hui Niu, who left China to pursue a sociology doctorate at the University in 1996, went home two years later, she was shocked by the change.
Niu said the Communist Party propaganda had been replaced by Coca-Cola and Marlboro signs. Although China’s education system harkened to its earlier days, its economic system opened up China’s 1.2 billion people to new freedoms, she said.
“The young people are attracted to those things,” she said. “On the other hand, the school system is still traditional.”
Deborah Davis, a sociology professor at Yale University, gave a lecture Friday on the social consequences of China’s consumer revolution at Carlson School of Management. The event was sponsored by the China Center.
Joan Brzezinski, acting director for the China Center, said the University organization’s goal is to facilitate student exchanges with China and to serve as a connecting point with University alumni in the country.
Since 1979, Davis has taken numerous trips to China, which prompted her to write a book, “The Consumer Revolution in Urban China,” and to give lectures on the consumer revolution in the country’s urban setting.
For three years, she and Yanjie Bian, an associate professor of sociology at the University, have been examining consumption in China, which she said has had a liberating effect on the population.
She said, for instance, the move toward five-day work weeks and two-day weekends has given people the opportunities to participate in a consumer lifestyle.
“This transformation of the economy has opened up spaces,” she said. “People have a lot more time of their own.”
Supporting the Internet’s impact on China, Davis said that despite the economic reforms, some people are left out.
Niu said the economic changes accentuate class differences in urban China and cause the country to become increasingly Westernized.
Another concern for sociologists is that the new freedom Chinese people enjoy is only relative.
“Even if they have new means to speak like they never had before, there are new ways to control people,” she said.
When Mao Zedong died in 1976, causing the end of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping, the new leader, was quick to initiate economic reforms.
Deng’s program initially focused on agriculture and rural China, but the reforms gradually spread to the cities.
Deng’s death and Britain’s hand over of Hong Kong in 1997 launched a new, unpredictable era in Chinese economy. With one-fifth the world’s population on mainland China, foreign investors are now jumping into the vast market.
“The reality of China right now is that it’s rather fluid, dynamic and in constant change,” David said.
Yu Li, a University visiting scholar from China who attended the lecture, agreed with Davis on the consumer revolution’s positive impact on Chinese society.
“Ten years ago, we had little things to buy,” he said. “We had no money. Right now, we have money enough to buy some things.”
Experts predict China will become a leading industrial power some time this century. But, as Davis explained, it is very hard to gauge the impact it will have on the population.
“There’s no straight line,” Niu said. “Things will move back and forth.”

David Anderson covers international perspectives and professional schools and welcomes comments at [email protected]