Thursday, March 17, 2011

Down the rabbit hole in the new year

While China celebrated and welcomed the year of rabbit this month, Vietnam was heralding the year of the cat. It seems to be a case of Chinese whispers in which the rabbit got transmogrified into a cat while travelling South, and resulted in the Vietnamese ringing in the year of the furry feline rather than the swifter rabbit.

Journalists who like to compare China with India, will need to note that unlike China there is no single Indian new year, and like the usual diversity in India, the different provinces, communities and religions celebrate their own new year. Comparing the economics of the two countries, and seeing the raging inflation and softening stock market in India, many worry that if it is the year of the hare in China, let it not be the year of the tortoise in India! But some economists feel that India will be the winner in the long run - China's boom could be a case of "hare today, gone tomorrow". Others, however place their bets on China, where sustained investment as well as focussed and efficient governance continues to drive the country towards new economic achievements and providing a better quality of life to its citizens.

The greatest human movement in the world in China (called 春运 chun yun or spring transportation) triggered by the new year, in which over 300 million migrant workers and others working away from their homes, head back to be united with their families, often results in anxiety and frustration. The eagerness or even desperation to get home, particularly pronounced among the migrant workers who have often left their children home in the care of their grandparents, is particularly pronounced. The competition for train tickets is particularly fierce and media has been full of stories of people queuing overnight only to be told when they reach the ticket window that all tickets to their home town are sold out. One sufferer of this fate was Chen Weiwei, who is utter desperation and frustration at failing to secure a place on the train home, stripped himself naked in the ticket office, forcing the authorities to provide him with tickets for him and his family. How were the authorities able to produce the tickets, when the ticket windows declared them "sold out" was a subject of much speculation in the Chinese blogosphere.

To the marketer, Chinese new year is the time to ease the consumers of their hard earned money, particularly exploiting their desire to return home laden with gifts for their parents, children and extended families. A health product called Nao Baijin, particularly exploits the sentiment urging consumers to buy super large, decorative festival packs of the magic pills to gift their ageing parents. Other marketers use the occasion to reach out to the consumers with promotions (as successfully done by the search engine Baidu - asking consumers to search for "hong bao" or the "gift envelop" to participate in a contest) or ride on the emotional bliss of uniting with or communicating with the loved ones (as done by QQ - China's most popular internet messenger).

While going home to meet parents can be joyous occasion, some young people also dread the parental inquisition and pressure for tie the knot and produce a grandchild for the parents to look after. Some have started resorting to hiring a member of the opposite sex masquerading as a potential marriage partner to ease the parental pressure. The phenomenon of hiring a girl friend to take home for Chinese new year, so that the parents are assured that their son is well on its way to a life of stability and marital bliss, inspired a new television series called "Zu ge nu you hui jia guo nian" or "Hiring a girl friend to take home for new year".

Written by Ashok Sethi, TNS China