It was the very first day of big summer sales. A friend and I hit several stores, emerging with bagfuls of clothing and accessories. She had found a pair of Zara shoes that she liked, but they ran out of her size. So we went to a Starbucks to get a latte, and I took out my iPhone to check if they were other malls with a Zara store in them so that we could go hunt down her size.
Does that sound familiar to you? I’ve had very similar experiences from Moscow to Berlin to New York; this time around, it was Beijing. I had been to Beijing several times before, my activities mostly limited to seeing millenia-old buildings or Communist memorabilia. So it had never occurred to me that Beijing was actually quite a shopper’s paradise.(Do blame airlines’ ridiculous weight allowances for my need to go indulge in consumerism).
Surprisingly, Beijing is in many ways much more consumerism-friendly than Moscow or NYC. Its malls are mostly very recently built (the one we went to is only two years old), and they feature exciting architecture, spacious food courts, and escalators galore (not to mention ubiquitous ads mostly featuring very Caucasian models). Beijingers love their sales as much as any red-blooded capitalist, and they enjoy a nice array of European, American, and Asian brands. There are, of course, cultural differences: Starbucks features coffee with jelly in it (jelly is added to various beverages in China); most snacks on display are cut-up fruit, not deep-fried-high-trans-fat-inedible-fast food; 99% of moisturizers feature whitening ingredients; I need a Small in European brands, an Extra-small in American ones (talk about vanity sizing), and a Large/Extra large in the Asian ones (talk about bruised ego). Plus, the Asian brands never carry my shoes size (a shocking 8-8.5). Other than that, local malls have that cosmopolitan feel to them that so many others ones all over the world do. Good for Bejing and Beijingers and us expats, right?
Having grown up in a post-Communist environment and having heard stories about shortage of everything, food and toilet paper included, I really came to appreciate being able to choose a gym bag from fifty different colors and shapes in at least twenty stores at the same mall. Of course, there is an income gap and the fact that most of the population will never be able to afford said gym bag, yet alone a coffee at Starbucks, but I’ve spent enough time in Russia to stop being sensitive to that fact. What really shocked me about local malls was how un-communist it all felt. Here I was in a middle of a country that blocks YouTube and -sometimes – Google, sets limits on the height of dogs, and requires foreigners to register with the authorities for as long as a one night stay with friends — not too mention much more serious violations of jus cogens — and everyone was happily hitting the sales. I wonder if the key to having a successful authoritarian regime is providing the masses with enough entertainment to make them forget the politics of it all?
Several Chinese friends who speak good English didn’t know the English word for ‘communism’, yet they can comfortably discuss lattes, sales, hairstyles, and what’s in vogue. I told a friend a joke about the CCP standing for the Chinese Capitalist Party, and she thought it was so true she had texted it to her friends right away. Many young adults appear not to care about Mao, Deng, or “whoever-the-leader-is-at-the-moment.” They have been through some political education classes, but never paid attention. They know that people sometimes disappear, but they stopped worrying about a long time ago, because most people don’t. They study English and want to go to college in the US, Europe, and Australia, or, in the worst case scenario, get a job with a foreign company in Beijing or Shanghai. They admit they don’t care about politics. All they want is a lifestyle filled with friends, fun, and shopping.
When I went on a day trip to a nearby village (very tourist-oriented, with all sorts of signs and sights and whatnot), many houses had signs that read: “Beijing Rural Tourism Household — Rated by Beijing Rural Tourism Household Rating Commission.” Which means there is a special government body that walks around rating rural households: “Congratulations, you made it! You are now a model household fit for being showed off to tourists!” That seems like a little too much government intervention to me.
China has just now blocked Facebook. Now, when they clocked YouTube I didn’t mind as much since I am not an avid user; but Facebook?!
In the meantime, life goes on. The malls are filed with customers, and the Internet censors are hard at work.