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The new China, from hamburgers to lonely hearts

by Ryan Nakashima

THE CONSUMER REVOLUTION IN URBAN CHINA, edited by Deborah S. Davis. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000, 379 pp., 35 b/w photos, 21 tables, $22 (paper).

McDonald’s is the great equalizer. Wherever you go in the world it tastes exactly the same. The same beef, the same cheese, the same shredded lettuce and the same gooey sauce that leaks out the side.

But who would have known that McDonald’s offers a space for the exercise of freedom for women in China, that 100 percent of Chinese women interviewed for one study would prefer eating at McDonald’s than at a traditional Chinese restaurant if there were only two places to eat left in the world?

Such are the insights in “The Consumer Revolution in Urban China,” a compilation of essays by 13 academic sojourners seeking to probe the complexities involved in China’s development as a mixed economy.

Editor Deborah Davis, a Yale University professor of sociology, has here amassed the works of some talented participant-observers who focus on such areas of consumption in the new economy as apartments, children’s goods, bridal dresses, groceries, phone hotlines, greeting cards, fast food, dance halls and discos, bowling alleys, cigarettes and public spaces.

In each there is the flavor of personal experience, as the researchers lived and worked in their environments to collect a wealth of information, adding insights, where helpful, from other academics.

As for the McDonald’s experience, Yunxiang Yan found that Chinese women enjoy McDonald’s because they can order for themselves, and — because of a prohibition on alcohol and smoking — there are fewer men to dominate the conversation. Traditional Chinese eateries lack such pleasures.

McDonald’s also offers a brief journey into America — for most Chinese, a clean place where they were served cheerfully and treated as customers who might spend their money elsewhere.

People did not go to McDonald’s for the taste, or its cheapness. One customer told Yunxiang that she only went so she could take her daughter twice a week.

“She explained: ‘I want my daughter to learn more about American culture. She is taking an English typing class now, and I will buy her a computer next year.’ Eating a Big Mac and fries, like learning typing and computer skills, is part of the mother’s plan to prepare her daughter for a modern society.”

But modernity does not change the basic foundation of Chinese life.

Kathleen Erwin remarks on the explosion of telecommunications in China. She focuses her study on advice hotlines where callers seek help on topics from sexual and marital problems to depression to problems at work.

While she says hotlines represent “freedom from direct party-state and family constraints on individual expression,” she also notes that the advice givers at the hotline she studied were all party members.

One man called to say his wife was finally pregnant after five years of trying to conceive. Unfortunately, the pregnancy was a result of the wife having slept with the man’s brother, for whom she apparently had no feelings other than the strong desire to bear a child.

The advice giver sympathized with the man but said he shouldn’t divorce the woman as it would have a terrible effect on the child.

When the item was broadcast, Erwin spoke with a regular listener, a Mrs. Zhao, 65, who said: “It’s very realistic. That kind of thing happens in China all the time. In feudal times, a man could sleep with his son’s wife, and the son had to accept it. That’s the way it is in Chinese families. . . . People have to eat bitterness for the sake of their families. It’s always been this way in China.”

So a medium that has the potential to release a storm of individualism separate from the party-state actually serves to disseminate party-sanctioned solutions, which generally tend toward the maintenance of a stable family unit.

In other essays, the blending of tradition with consumer-driven modernity is reinforced. In the essay on the growing popularity of Western white wedding dresses in the minority ethnic Hui quarter of the city Xi’an, Maris Gillette tells the story of Xue.

Xue is a young woman who finds that her rented gown is dirty, storms back to the store and demands a replacement for free on the day of the ceremony. Gillette remarks, “Her story reveals an awareness of consumer rights that is new to the post-Mao era. Xue’s attempts mark a significant transformation in the Chinese economy and the powers of Chinese citizens.”

Yet a full seven hours of the four-day ceremony was devoted to Xue being on display before her in-laws while maintaining a demure posture with downcast eyes — an exhibition of the value she brings to the new family.

One might think the government would be alarmed that Chinese people are becoming economically empowered, with wealth at their disposal, and even ready to choose, to an extent, free expression.

But, as Richard Madsen writes, the state still plays an enormous role in allowing access to the liberties associated with a market economy.

“For many urban workers, enjoyment of the freedoms of a consumer society has been made possible by underemployment in an inefficient system of state-owned enterprises that have limited individual mobility but provide basic salary, housing and health benefits while a churning private economy produces dynamic economic growth. If the state-owned enterprises were to be dismantled quickly, there would be massive unemployment. One cannot well enjoy the thrills of consumer choice if one does not have a job.”

These studies suggest that while no single product radically changes the ideological or cultural landscape of China, the slow accretion of small freedoms entailed when making consumer choices may create a citizenry that feels more empowered and demanding of the ultimate free choice — that of choosing its own elected government.