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Published on February 3, 2010

OPINION: Think you know China? Eight things foreigners get wrong

SHANGHAI, China (Feb. 3, 2010) — As a public service, here's a thoroughly idiosyncratic, non-comprehensive list of the eight most common misunderstandings about China.

1. China is America in the 1950s (or Japan in the '80s, or Mexico in the '90s or ...).

Everybody loves a good historic analogy, but China is too big, too complex and too thoroughly integrated with the rest of the world. The country's consumer culture is leapfrogging its own unique path.

2. China's public data are unreliable.

There have been tremendous strides recently in the quality of publicly available data, especially for urban demographics. Pay attention to the development plans of central and city governments. They are clear and ambitious, if vague at times. I also recommend a visit to the Shanghai Museum of Urban Planning to anyone curious about population density, retail clusters or transportation infrastructure.

3. China's Internet is like the rest of the world.

As Google's recent drama has highlighted, China's Internet is unique. Global big guys like eBay, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Skype and, yes, Google are insignificant or non-existent here.

Want to utilize social networks for your brand? Spend a day learning QQ and mastering its roster of functions not seen in the West. I have a soft spot for Douban, which acts as a sort of user-generated index to the global library of music and film. (QQ is a popular free instant messaging computer program in Mainland China with more than 300 million users; Douban is a web2.0 startup founded by Bo Yang to help users to tag, share, rate, review and discover books, movies and music.)

Empowered by Douban, culturally inclined youth are uncovering everything from punk classics to experimental Dutch cinema, and sharing them with their friends.

4. China's consumers are split between urban and rural.

Technically true. But most global brands are actually dealing with a limited part of China: the mega-urban and the merely urban. China's consumer market is overwhelmingly clustered in cities—many with populations of one million or more.

Size isn't everything. The most relevant factor for marketers should be the city's access to a cultural center like Beijing or Chengdu. A mom living in a medium-size city two hours from Guangzhou is likely to be more sophisticated about brands than her counterpart living in the massively populated, but under-exposed, provincial capital city Zhengzhou.

5. China's regional differences are as big as Europe's.

I hear this one from very sophisticated people, keen to show their respect for the scale and scope of China. Their hearts are in the right place, but they overstate the case. There are certainly regional differences, but within a moderate range. All of China learns the same history, takes the same exams, speaks the same language (at school at least) and watches the same news programs. Climate is one big exception, and it does influence food, architecture and even clothing.

6. There are big generation gaps between each decade.

Generation gaps are huge, and they crop up more than every decade. This is a logical result of fast economic growth. Changes in culture and technology result in wildly different formative environments.

Today's 25-year-olds grew up watching glossy boy bands like Taiwan's F4. Meanwhile, kids a mere five years younger watched gender-bending Li Yuchun (from “Super Girl”) and other courageous oddities of the reality TV circuit. Is it any wonder they embrace a weirdness that baffles their elders?

7. China is rapidly Westernizing.

Without a doubt China is modernizing—just look at all the KFCs. But can we call it Westernizing if those KFCs sell congee for breakfast?

While there is a notable increase in Western brands and lifestyle options, it is matched by a comparable increase in historic Chinese culture. Witness the renewed interest in pu'er tea collecting, learning calligraphy and the resurrection of Imperial dishes.

There is a strong argument that China is becoming more Chinese. There's one other often-overlooked influence: North Asia. Japan, the world's second biggest economy, sits off China's shore, and its cultural influence is at least as significant as that of the West. Sure, 18-year-olds in urban China are wearing American Nike shoes. But 15-year-old kids are reading Japanese manga and listening to Korean pop.

8. Chinese youth are divided into tribes.

There is a kernel of truth here, and young people are segmenting themselves at ever-earlier ages. But these tribes look different from their Western counterparts. In the West, we can use magazine, music or brand affiliations as shorthand to describe a group. These don't quite work in China, what with print media being relatively small and the music scene so confused by piracy.

Brand preference can be descriptive in big cities, but in the rest of the country brand differentiation is more blurred. So what does that leave? Celebrity preference can be useful. Choice of hobbies, including membership in online clubs, says a lot about a person. But there is a lot of fluidity and change.

P.T. Black is a partner at Jigsaw International Ltd., a boutique lifestyle research agency in Shanghai that looks at the direction of change in China, particularly among young adults. This piece appeared in Advertising Age, a New York-based sister publication of Tire Business.


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