A Once Frugal Nation, China Is Getting Run Over By Consumerism

A shopping street in Wenzhou, China
A shopping street in Wenzhou, China
Bai Zao


BEIJING — The "invisible poor" has become a new online — and ironic — moniker in China. It describes young people who earn more than 10,000 RMB ($1,570) a month, a considerable income for most Chinese, but who are also big spenders. They wear $500 suits, get regular facials, drink top-class Chilean wine, and insist on living in a rental apartment that costs more than half their monthly salary. In brief, this so-called "poor" population owes their poverty to their extravagant lifestyle rather than to low income.

In a country historically known for the frugality of its people, this new generational trend is worrying certain Chinese economists. They are concerned that a society of savers is yielding to the habit of "living paycheck to paycheck," with the risk that it could turn China as a whole into a high-debt nation obsessed with personal consumption.

Precisely as the cultural critics of post-modern times have been criticizing, they are convinced that excessive advance consumption will allow the world to be coerced by desire, and in turn dispel our culture and its depth.


McDonald's near Drum Tower in Xi'an — Photo: BrokenSphere

China is now experiencing what the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard described in his 1970 book "The Consumer Society": modern citizens surrounded with an ever-increasing abundance of objects, services and material wealth which necessarily leads to stunning consumption. This constitutes a fundamental change in the human experience.

The pursuit of self-gratification is central to the post-industrial society, as society advances and living standards improve, vast numbers of people demands now reach beyond their basic needs. High-end furniture as well as electronics, imported infant milk, luxurious cosmetics and apparel make up Chinese people's material demands, but are also a symbol of their identity and status. In brief, commodity worship is deep down in people" consciousness and is now becoming the driving ideology of a Chinese consumer society.

Recently a story made the rounds on China's internet: a senior R&D engineer was rejected after a blind-date with a girl on the grounds that he went to the date wearing a pair of China-made shoes. Not part of the so-called "invisible poor," this practical, down-to-earth man was ruthlessly ridiculed by young people on social media.

The pursuit of status, taste, identity and self-perception feeds consumer society, and vice-versa. Thus the shame in wearing a domestic brand and demands that a sandwich comes with avocado in it. A holiday is not worthy of the name unless it is taken abroad. And so on. One relies on these "codes' to find people with a similar outlook.

The debt-ridden approach is linked to the American lifestyle, where people pay anything from their medical bills to their pots and pans with a credit card, But there's one basic reason why Americans dare to spend money they don't have: because the credit system is well developed with checks and balances.

Humans are not just economic animals.

The momentum of China's ongoing financial innovation such as wallet-less mobile payments, and the various small consumer loans that are extended for daily consumption, such as renting, tourism, decoration, and education, is quietly encouraging youngsters to spend money. In essence, the background of this "invisible poor" is exactly the same as that in the United States.

Americans also have a sound retirement and insurance system to help guarantee their future. Developed over the past 200 years, today the system includes public social security, employer benefits and private retirement plans.

From an economic perspective, the phenomenon of a growing population of "invisible poor" in China is not particularly worth worrying about as long as the supporting financial, retirement and insurance systems go with it.

Chinese youth are busy enjoying the convenience brought about by this wave of internet financial innovations. The important thing is to come up with a pension and insurance system that can prevent them from poor (for real) when they hit middle age.

Of course, humans are not just pure economic animals. Though everyone is free to dispose of their assets as they see fit, it is hard to tell how much consumption is caused by conformity spending, impulsiveness, or the urge to measure up with others. Regardless, this all returns us to the initial question: how can someone find feelings of satisfaction while spending money they don't have?

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

A Mother In Spain Denied Child Custody Because She Lives In Rural Area

A court in Spain usurps custody of the one-year-old boy living with his mother in the "deep" part of the Galicia region, forced to instead live with his father in the southern city of Marbella, which the judge says is "cosmopolitan" with good schools and medical care. Women's rights groups have taken up the mother's case.

A child in Galician countryside

Laure Gautherin

A Spanish court has ordered the withdrawal of a mother's custody of her one-year-old boy because she is living in the countryside in northwestern Spain, where the judge says the child won't have "opportunities for the proper development of his personality."

The case, reported Monday in La Voz de Galicia, has sparked outrage from a women's rights association but has also set off reactions from politicians of different stripes across the province of Galicia, defending the values of rural life.

Judge María Belén Ureña Carazo, of the family court of Marbella, a city on the southern coast of 141,000 people, has ordered the toddler to stay with father who lives in the city rather than with his mother because she was living in "deep Galicia" where the child would lack opportunities to "grow up in a happy environment."

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - October 25, 2021

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - Monday 25 October, 2021

La Voz de Galicia

Better in a "cosmopolitan" city?

The judge said Marbella, where the father lives, was a "cosmopolitan city" with "a good hospital" as well as "all kinds of schools" and thus provided a better environment for the child to thrive.

The mother has submitted a formal complaint to the General Council of the Judiciary that the family court magistrate had acted with "absolute contempt," her lawyer told La Voz de Galicia.

The mother quickly accumulated support from local politicians and civic organizations. The Clara Campoamor association described the judge's arguments as offensive, intolerable and typical of "an ignorant person who has not traveled much."

The Xunta de Galicia, the regional government, has addressed the case, saying that any place in Galicia meets the conditions to educate a minor. The Socialist party politician Pablo Arangüena tweeted that "it would not hurt part of the judiciary to spend a summer in Galicia."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!