Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Karl Gerth's "As China Goes, So Goes the World"

Karl Gerth is a tutor and fellow at Merton College and an historian of modern Chinese history at Oxford University. His new book is As China Goes, So Goes the World: How Chinese Consumers are Transforming Everything, which Kirkus Reviews describes as “Nuanced, balanced and accessible—essential reading for anyone trying to make sense of China today.”

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to As China Goes, So Goes the World and reported the following:
Consider the book’s title. As China Goes, So Goes the World. If that weren’t promising a lot already, the subtitle goes even further: How Chinese Consumers are Transforming Everything. Not just a few things, everything! Yet at first glance, the Page 99 test seemingly catches me with my pants down. On page 99, I am describing the transition from government-run stores during the Mao Zedong era in the 1970s, through the mom-and-pop shops of the reform era in the 1980s and early 1990s, leading toward the present spread of Wal-Marts, 7-Elevens, Best-Buys, and other leading global retailers.

Page 99 focuses on the reemergence of private marketplaces in the 1980s where sellers set their own prices and buyers must again beware:
The end of fixed prices [during the market reforms in the 1980s] also saw the return of the image of the “cunning merchant” (jianshang). In traditional Chinese culture, merchants were generally viewed as making money not, like most Chinese, through hard agricultural labor in the hot sun or even making things by hand, but rather by manipulating prices and information. Even before the Communist Revolution [in 1949], in the early twentieth century merchants were often portrayed in popular culture as treasonous, helping to sell imported products from the imperialist powers, especially Japan, that then dominated China. Then, as now, not everyone sold the same product at the same price. Now price has again become, like so much else in China, relational, with premiums demanded from foreigners and anyone unfamiliar with the market or the seller. In this environment, no wonder bargaining quickly re-emerged as the quintessential marketplace experience.
But why should readers care that Chinese are changing where they shop? How is that changing everything? Of course, Chinese learning to shop at Wal-Mart is a small part of a much bigger picture. The book shows how hundreds of millions of Chinese adapting consumer lifestyles similar to yours is deepening the global commitment to consumer-driven economies and cultures. And, as China continues to participate in the world economy, in the coming years and decades, their brands will change your consciousness and lifestyle the way, say, Sony or Google have. China giving you countless new brands, products, and shopping experiences is a bit of the good news. But there are also serious downsides. What if global markets, including in your country, increasingly look like Chinese markets and are rife with counterfeits? Imagine buying a Coke and not trusting what is in it. Likewise, as the newly wealthy in China buy the things they want, they are consuming into extinction entire species. Will your local aquarium be as interesting a place without the shark exhibition? Big and small, these and countless other changes are underway.

As China Goes gives general readers a way to understand the tremendous and diverse global changes underway that have been triggered by Chinese consumers; it’s the Chinese people who are driving these changes rather than the political elites whom we usually read about. I hope As China Goes will also prompt readers to think about how their own consumer choices are driving global environmental, economic, and cultural changes. After all, what happens inside China is also deeply influenced by the actions of consumers in other countries.
Read more about As China Goes, So Goes the World at the publisher's website, and visit Karl Gerth's Oxford University homepage.

--Marshal Zeringue