The rapid development of the Chinese economy and the huge potential of the domestic consumer market has led to significant interest in the sociology and practices of the regular Zhou on the part of Western academics and those connected to commerce. With China having been shut off for so long, and being home to such an enormous population, it represents virgin soil of the highest potential for every would-be entrepreneurial incomer. For marketers China (along with India) is the new land, the territories. The assumption has often been that economic development is synonymous with Westernisation. But is that so? Freed from the shackles of communist orthodoxy, what do people here desire? What motivates them? How do they behave? What are their affinities, hopes, allegiances, fears, and groupings?
One such study is this fascinating book by Michael B. Griffiths, Director of Ethnography, Ogilvy & Mather Greater China. Taking a post-structuralist perspective on sociological and ethnographic practices, he examines various aspects of day-to-day urban Chinese life, as lived in the city of Anhan, Liaoning province. These areas include “Knowledge”, “Sociability”, “Morality”, and “Workers”. With empathy and humane understanding, Griffiths shows how individuals claim agency within the everyday structures they find in their environment. This might sound long-winded, but really just means he shows how people act to assert themselves within their boundaries, according to the sections Griffiths outlines. For example, in the “Sociability” chapter, he shows how the rules of courtesy and face must be negotiated to maintain a social status. Some will refuse a dinner that they cannot reciprocate, even if it’s made clear that no return is expected or desired; some may strive too hard to claim generosity as a social distinction when the intimacy it relies upon has not actually been formed; while yet others, lacking the everyday means to treat others, prefer to formalise their munificence into “a rare orgy of success”. On the other hand, in one of the most illuminating sections, Griffiths illustrates the Chinese recognition and acceptance of varying personality types. Whereas British (for example) culture picks out personality differences in pejorative terms (such as introvert, geeky, loud, etc), the local system of recognition is based on activities and accomplishments or lethargy – either way, it’s what you do, not what you are. This performative view of personality is a modern, and tolerant, approach – far from the homogenous mass which the Chinese population is sometimes crudely stereotyped!
What is most pleasing is the sense that Griffiths really knows what he’s talking about. Living in Anshan for several years conducting field research, he evidently engaged in local life in a real grassroots manner. Too often talk of “Chinese consumers” has referred to the high-end, high net-worth segment of the market, omitting the lives and cultures of the 99%. Griffiths’ book however sets itself squarely within the migrant workers, low-scale entrepreneurs, farmers and former factory workers of Anshan. This shows to the benefit of each section, where he records the rites and rituals of Chinese life, and also gives (often pungent) tastes of local opinion on these areas. This is no bland marketing exercise, but rather a frank truth-telling. Long-term expats will find themselves nodding in agreement and recognition, particularly if they have lived outwith the major cities.
One of the most fascinating sections of The New Industrial State by the much-esteemed economist JK Galbraith is where he explicates how, in advanced (which at the time of writing (1967) meant “Western”) economies, the planning functions of industry and commerce are performed by the large corporations. In the Soviet economies, and even the left-leaning European states after WWII, “planning” was a state-led, top-down, process: the state decided how the main industries would function and allocated resources accordingly. Consumer desires were something of an afterthought, as can be seen from the quality of Soviet products – no-one ever waxed nostalgic about driving a Lada. The Western planning system as operated by major, private, corporations is far more efficient. The corporations, through advertising, marketing, vertical integration, partnerships and so forth, encroach every private surface they possibly can – even public toilets, buses and elevators, these days. But modern consumerism works on the principle of giving people what they want, and so great attention is paid to the changing face of their consumer markets, through market surveys, polling, tracking sociological and demographic shifts, and so on. If Freud asked “Woman… what does she want?”, the modern question is, “Who are the consumers and what do they want?” (The similarity to modern politics is also notable).
That apparatus, we can now see, is being developed here in China. This is one of the first books to really examine life as it is lived in China for the urban working population, and which strives to understand the motivations of this new society. It is also one of the first to show how valuable this is. For marketers, advertisers, academics, sociologists and businesspeople seeking to understand their audience, this is an important book.
Published in Agenda Beijing