Chinese Individualism goes Foreign

Individualism in China is increasingly being expressed by the foreign consumer brands they possess. Chinese youth, in particular, use foreign goods to denote who they are without verbal expression. Mobile phones, western clothing, and designer goods are all used to express this individualism. It allows one to create their own sense of worth and value.

According to the European Business Review, China is soon expected to become the largest market for luxury goods. One question frequently asked is why is China, a socialist country, so interested in the possession of luxury goods? After all, it’s a Communist country that espouses equality, common goals, and frugality. Perhaps one answer to this question can be found in the desire of Chinese to mimic emblems of power from western culture which give the consumer an individualistic sense of modernity, wealth, achievement, and success, not unlike the desires of consumers in other global economies. However, in China these are the drivers which Chinese consumers use to set themselves apart within their peer group. It lets others know they exist, that they’re important, and that they matter.

This individualistic expression was largely absent from China until Deng Xiaoping’s policy reforms in 1978 which encouraged the individual pursuit of wealth and, at the same time, opened China’s doors to foreigners and encouraged their participation in the growth of China. The post-1978 generation grew up with a different mindset from their parent’s generation. Instead of individual efforts which collectivized wealth for the common good, this generation sought to obtain individual wealth and its trappings which manifested their success and set them apart from others in their peer group. Since foreign goods within China are far more expensive than domestic products, what better way to express one’s individual accomplishments and success? In addition, foreign goods are generally recognized as being of superior quality and reliability when compared to domestically produced products. Foreign products offer the latest technology or the most recent styles to Chinese consumers who are increasingly knowledgeable thanks, in large part, to the Internet.

According to Pierre Xiao Lu, Assistant professor of Marketing at the School of Management in Shanghai, the ability to afford such luxury goods is due to the rapid rise of social wealth which increased by an average of 10% in the three decades from the 1980’s to 2010. This allowed Chinese consumers to experience a better life with products of superior quality to those manufactured domestically. In addition, these products were an individual’s moniker of success, power, modernity, and self-confidence. This is also a reason one sees so many fake luxury goods in China. After all, only a small percentage of China’s 1.3 billion people are able to afford authentic foreign products. Those Chinese who are lower on the economic ladder also want to express their individualism and enhance their value within their peer group. Fake goods provide them with this opportunity.

But culture sometimes gets in the way of individualistic expression and causes conflicts. For example, China is a socialist country with a market-driven economy. It also promotes national equality among its citizenry. Moreover, the average Chinese citizen believes in this equality. In addition, the Chinese culture teaches one not to have an extravagant lifestyle, to exercise frugality, and to be discreet. This is a part of their socialistic value system and they’ve been raised to accept this as an inherent part of their culture.

Post-1978, these cultural traditions are still being taught, but they’re gradually giving way to individuals wanting recognition for their personal success and achievements. They want to separate themselves from their peer group through their accomplishments. Possession of foreign goods allows them to express their individualism in a country that has a centralized power structure and limits individual liberties. A red Ferrari driving through the streets of Beijing or a Gucci bag is a vivid expression of their independence and freedom.

This expressionism has not gone unnoticed by foreign firms who increasingly view China as a necessity for their long-term growth. The Economist notes that foreign manufacturers have therefore localized their products to broaden their appeal to the Chinese consumer. L’Oreal, for example, through its Japanese subsidiaries, Nihon L’Oreal and Shu Uemura, have developed products specifically for the Chinese market.

Furthermore, not only is Chinese enthusiasm for foreign products expressed by their purchase of foreign goods, but also by their increasing patronage of foreign food establishments. These establishments give many the feeling of westernization and sophistication, even if they’re fast food venues. In addition, Chinese tastes are becoming increasingly international. In response, many companies have added local food preferences to accommodate Chinese tastes. Chris Torrens, a Chinese specialist with the independent risk consultancy Control Risks notes that KFC, for example, in addition to its traditional product line, also sells youtiao, a Shanghainese breakfast dish made from deep-fried twisted dough, duck-style chicken rolls, Cantonese-style pumpkin congee (a rice porridge that can contain meat, fish, or other side ingredients), and gongbao jiding, a spicy Sichuanese chicken dish. While these are obviously not dishes commonly found outside of China, going to foreign food establishments stills carries a cache of individualistic expression and sophistication even if Chinese food is ordered.

As China becomes more entwined with the international community, and information becomes more available through the use of the Internet, economic growth and cultural changes will continue to occur. With little or no brand heritage, Chinese are turning toward foreign products, and patronage of foreign food establishments, as a way to distinguish themselves within their peer group, raise their quality of life, and visually proclaim a sense of independence and freedom.

Alan Refkin

If you are currently not receiving our newsletters or blogs and would like to, please sign up, which will also give you access to past editions of our blog’s. We would also be pleased to answer any questions you may have by contacting us at

Leave a Reply