The recently introduced, and rather amusing, ban on Beijing billboards ‘promoting hedonism, aristocratic lifestyles and the worship of foreign things’, reminded me of a brush with luxury from my past.
I had the pleasure, back in 2008, of meeting an old family friend for a meal and a glass of wine (nay, several) at a five-star hotel in Beijing. We were drawn into conversation with the bar manager and, via a fascinating discussion on the hotel’s attitude toward prostitution on the premises, got talking about the glitzy shopping mall in the basement – more specifically, about its apparent complete lack of custom.
The manager chuckled, “They are empty and lose money most of the year, but you just wait until there is a mining conference from the provinces in town.”
It seems a reasonable assumption that a sizable amount of mainland luxury spending is now by consumers who live beyond the coastal powerhouses. The Shanghainese and Beijing snobs may ridicule such buyers as tubaozi (potato buns), but for luxury brands such consumers cannot be ignored, and may indeed be vital going forward.
The vast sums of money poured into the extractive industries – in particular in China’s wild west – have lined the pockets of a select, if increasing, few. However, there is only so much in the way of quality you can buy in a fourth-tier Chinese city. A jolly to the big city is the perfect opportunity for buying luxury, quality brands (often en masse) to take back to the provinces. Or perhaps that is not quite accurate, for it is not always quality that matters.
In the strict sense, the whole of China is what Westerners would rather sneeringly refer to as ‘nouveaux riche’. As Helen Wu, a Shanghai TV entertainment editor, recently commented, “Chinese consumers do not have good taste in luxury consumption. They buy things just because a magazine or luxury website told them it is worth buying.” Wu’s accusation is a familiar one, leveled by old money against new everywhere.
True luxury goods are, by definition, excessive, and this inherent excess grants the owner status. This sort of status, being rare, is particularly valued in the poorer parts of China. For the newly minted mining executive from China’s interior, there is no substitute for top luxury brands. But of course the less exclusive a product is, the less excessive it seems, and this of course defeats the purpose.
Goods that were once the preserve of the Chinese elites are increasingly within reach of the upstarts from the hinterlands. Beijingers and the Shanghainese are on the defensive. As their money advantage is increasingly diluted, the effort to maintain an air of superiority sees these self-defined elites attempting to rebrand luxury, shifting toward an embryonic post-materialism.
This is a familiar pattern. In the West, once the upper class could no longer find products that were out of reach of middle class consumers, they turned to services and “experiences” that excluded the poor. In China, this process is just now underway.