Sunday, December 25, 2011

Chinese consumers in 2011

As the world prepares to bid adieu to 2011, the Chinese still have a few weeks before the year of the rabbit sprints off and the mighty dragon is ushered in. The developed world has seen a miserable year and this has been a tough year for the Chinese too. Inflation has been consistently high - the consumer price inflation finally being reined down to under 5% only in November, economy is slowing down - and the Shanghai Composite index has lost more than 20% of its value since the beginning of the year. However 2012 is the year of the dragon - which is as propitious and auspicious as they get. With furrowed brows and much on their mind, the Chinese look back at 2011 with reflection and look forward to 2012 with optimistic anticipation.

Slow train coming

While in 2010 the nation witnessed a devastating fire in a 28 storey building under renovation in Shanghai in which 58 people lost their lives, in 2011 it was the Wenzhou train crash which resulted in similar protestations and lament at a preventable tragedy. China has been on the fast track in developing the largest fast train network in the world, with trains running at speeds of up to 350 kms an hour. The “gao tie” high speed train service between Shanghai and Beijing was inaugurated around the middle of the year and now consumers can do this journey of 1300 kilometers in just over 5 hours. However, the euphoria over this undoubtedly extraordinary achievement was short lived, when two high speed trains collided (though on a different route) taking many lives with it. The Chinese citizens were aghast and protested vociferously against suspected flouting of safety standards and lack of transparency. Transparency is something the Chinese have begun to value more and more - whether it is from the government or the companies who try to sell to them.

Swill oil and other food horrors

A few years ago the Chinese encountered the "melamine tragedy" - in which unscrupulous middlemen adulterated milk with the chemical. Hundreds of children developed stones in their kidneys and a few lost their lives. This year the consumers continue to be confounded by more food scares - the most horrifying of which was the alleged recycling of used cooking oil from sewers next to the restaurants. Consumers were also scared out of their wits by feeding of clenbuterol to pigs, which results in lean meat but can cause nausea, dizziness and heart palpitations in people who eat animals that were fed with it. We can be sure that the consumers are going to demand the highest level of food safety from manufacturers in 2012.

PM2.5 detector on the roof of the American Embassy

The health concerns of the consumers were not just confined to what they ate, but also the air they breathed. The number of smoggy days in Beijing and other big cities seem to have increased in recent times. Consumers complained that the official reports on air pollution were not accurate when they saw the results of the air pollution monitor that the American Embassy installed on its roof in Beijing. The Americans also measured PM2.5 particles (particles in the air with a diameter of less that 2.5 microns) which some scientist believe are actually more harmful than the larger ones. The government now has agreed to report PM2.5 in their pollution reports and hopefully the citizens can breathe more freely and look forward to cleaner air in 2012.

Rousing out of callousness

The Chinese have often felt that, preoccupied with the pursuit of money, there is certain degree of callousness that has overtaken the country and we often ignore injustices around us and hesitate to extend a helping hand. It took the tragic death of 2 year old Yueyue that roused the collective conscience of the nation and the Chinese took to upbraiding themselves for the thickness of their skin. The two year old was run over by two vehicles in Foshan, Guangdong and ignored by passerby’s till a cleaning lady took notice. It is believed that a major factor which restrains the helping hand is the fear that the rescued may turn into an accuser, as it has occurred in a few cases in the past. Several prominent professors from leading universities offered to compensate their students and cover their liabilities if they were ever sued by the subjects of their help. 2012 should see more sensitive hearts and a more willing hands in China.

Bad news for entertainment

In 2011 the authorities thought they need to protect the consumer from too much entertainment and also too much advertising. Firstly in March Chongqing television decided to go totally “ad-less”. In October, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) decided to limit each of the country's 34 satellite channels to a maximum of 90 minutes of entertainment content from 7:30 pm to 10 pm every day. The remaining time, it was suggested, should be filled with news and programs to uplift the moral standards of the viewers. And most recently the officials announced that the government would impose a ban on advertisements in the middle of television dramas starting in 2012, though the ads will appear in the beginning and the end of the programmes. The marketers and the advertising industry feel that they can cope up with it – though some experts feel that it may drive more advertising to the digital medium.

China's own heaven

Largely an atheist nation, and not believing in the existence of heaven or hell, the Chinese have created their own heaven in space. Tiangong-1 or "Heavenly Palace -1" space station module was successfully launched this year. Subsequently Shenzhou VII spacecraft gloriously docked with the space station and returned back to earth in one piece. It is believed that this is a strategy to compensate for the possible decline in Chinese exports, by opening up a new revenue stream by renting space in the Chinese "heaven" to the religious departed from the West.

Marriage for love

It its attempt to foster greater love and lower commerce in marriage,
the Chinese courts made it clear that a home purchased before marriage is the personal property of the person who bought it. In case of divorce, the registered owner will keep the house but needs to compensate the partner if he or she contributed to any mortgage payments and any other expense which increased value in the property. The amendment to the marriage law was largely seen as rational, though the view was divided on whether it will discourage fortune hunting and result in a greater number of marriages being founded on the solid rock of love.

Naked marriage and other dressing downs

Confounded by rising cost of marriage, a new trend of naked marriage took shape in 2011. Contrary to what is suggested by the name, the nuptials do not take place in a state of undress; the "nakedness" is merely figurative and indicates that the couple took the plunge without the usual extravagant preparations and expense which accompany the occasion. The phrase caught the fancy of the citizens and they quickly coined other things that you can do with a similar degree of unpreparedness or vulnerability - such as naked resignation (resigning without another job) or naked examination (showing up for the test without adequate preparation). 2012 should see more the Chinese showing more willingness to break away from the herd, and follow their own hearts and minds.

Written by Ashok Sethi