More than two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall was heralded as the triumph of liberal democracy, ordinary Chinese still lack basic political liberties. They can’t form rival political organizations to the ruling Communist Party, or meet to discuss doing so. Independent trade unions are banned. Attending church can become risky if the party decides a congregation is an incubator for something sinister. Every so often, the Chinese authorities even outlaw the evangelical-style get-togethers of successful Amway and Avon salespeople out of fear that such enthusiastic meetings will swell into a collective political sentiment. Last year writer and activist Liu Xiaobo, the recent recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, was sentenced to eleven years in prison for circulating Charter 08, a petition pressing the Communist Party to uphold the country’s Constitution.
But there is one thing that the Chinese have had the liberty to do since their economy was first prized open to market forces in the late 1970s: consume. When General Motors was recently studying ways to reinvigorate the Buick sedan, it turned to the company’s design team in China. Tired as the iconic American brand might be at home, the Buick sedan has been a top-selling model in China for a decade. With an eye on taking the brand upscale, the designers focused on the swelling market of chauffeur-driven Chinese entrepreneurs, adding extra legroom and power sunshades in the rear and two screens connected to a DVD system for back-seat passengers. The LaCrosse costs up to $49,000 in China, whereas the price of an average sedan is about $7,500. “In China, the owner of a car such as a [Buick] LaCrosse tends to be driven during the week. So he or she wants extra comfort in the back,” a GM spokesman in Shanghai told the Financial Times. “So when developing the new LaCrosse—which is sold in the US and China—we paid special attention to the back seat. Customers in the US will benefit from this.” (The new features were incorporated into the US model released this year.)
As Karl Gerth chronicles in As China Goes, So Goes the World, when a country of 1.3 billion people suddenly decides to join the line at the global supermarket, its citizens’ decisions flow like a torrent through markets ranging from cars to sneakers, clothes, generators and cement. When the same people decide at the same time to make just about everything in the supermarket, for a tenth of the price, and to sell the products to whoever wants to buy them, the impact becomes even more dramatic. If the disparate peculiarities of Chinese economic reform and folk culture are taken into account—the collapse of the state health system and one-child policy, and longstanding predilections for using, say, bear’s bile as a remedy for impotence or arthritis—the impact is even greater. The surging growth of Chinese consumerism has created what Gerth calls “extreme markets”; there is a proliferation of bear farms in China, and local tigers are being hunted to the point of extinction for their skin, used in clothing, and their bones, which are an ingredient in Chinese medicine. The abrupt withdrawal of the state from the provision of healthcare in the 1990s—a decision gradually being reversed—spawned black markets for kidneys and livers. Yet Gerth points out that despite the millions of Chinese who need organ transplants, the majority of the 20,000 transplant operations performed in China each year involve foreign patients, simply because they can pay higher fees.
From a standing start in the aftermath of Mao Zedong’s death, Chinese consumption has grown astoundingly. Gerth says the expansion is the deliberate outcome of government policy to spur economic growth. That is true as far as it goes. In the interest of greater precision, he could have added that consumption has flourished in tandem with the Communist Party’s decision to largely remove itself from the private lives of its citizens. Even while restrictions on political liberties have remained firmly in place, opportunities for individual Chinese to grow and prosper have expanded enormously.