Buying a Piece of America: Why Chinese Shoppers Love U.S. Brands

Products from Nike to Apple to Lady Gaga offer a safe way to taste the forbidden fruit of American individualism.

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Shoppers walk past a new mall under construction in Shanghai. (Reuters).

Americans can often carry a somewhat simplistic view of China and the Chinese people. Although apprehensive about the rise of this economic juggernaut and its impact on the American way of life, the images China casts are rooted in the past: dusty, robotic, gray, and ultraconformist.

The Chinese, on the other hand, are fascinated by America, although often perplexed by its inherent contradictions. The United States is both free and unfair, creative and fashion challenged (some Chinese describe blue button-down shirts and khaki pants as our uniform), sporty and grossly overweight, institutionally robust and politically dysfunctional, individualistic and self-deluded (they love to laugh at narcissistic, talent-free American Idol contestants). They are amazed that a nation of 300 million self-starters does not come apart at the seams.

On a personal level, the Chinese admire -- are even intoxicated by -- U.S.-style individualism. At the same time, they regard it as dangerous, both personally and as a national competitive advantage.

In 1999, NATO bombed the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia. Thirteen years later, the vast majority of Chinese still assume the act was not only intentional but also a murky plot by the United States, the leading power in NATO, to contain China. The nation erupted with rage, but it was the fury of betrayal, disorientation, and stunned rejection. No one chanted, "America is evil." Instead, there were tears of disillusionment. The United States, then widely perceived as a land of endless opportunity and noble ideals, was exposed as just another country where the powerful protect their interests at any cost.

I had been in China for a year then and was always greeted with openness, curiosity, and warmth. When the news of my country's misdeed swept the airwaves, the lights went out. No one's eyes met mine. They wondered whether I too was a fraud, a commercial hack intent on profiting from China at the expense of China. After a week, tempers cooled, but a scar of regretful suspicion has since marred the cultural landscape.

Evidence of deep affection for the American way of life is everywhere. Illegal DVDs of U.S. movies and television shows sell like hotcakes, especially ones such as Friends, Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives, and The Big Bang Theory, which celebrate a quintessentially American fusion of community and individual idiosyncrasy.

The election of President Barack Obama, a black man with no dynastic credentials, is regarded with awe, a tribute to genuine egalitarianism. Every conglomerate wants to become the GE of China, while Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are role models of the highest order, respected for personal vision and achieving master-of-the-universe status. Among denizens of rural China, who are less worldly than their coastal counterparts, America is not only esteemed for its freedom; it is also described transcendentally as "a land of dreams."

The American dream -- wealth that culminates in freedom -- is intoxicating for Chinese, young and old alike. But whereas Americans dream of independence, Chinese crave control of one's destiny and command of the headaches and vagaries of daily life. Americans fantasize about being "horizontally" apart -- living a sequestered life on a tropical island, away from the rat race's hustle and bustle. Chinese dreams are "vertical," to be on top of a mountain, looking down, able to manipulate the complexities of human existence.

But Chinese do not want to be sequestered from their world. In contemporary author Su Tong's book My Life as an Emperor, a fictional ruler, banished from his throne, fantasizes about being a high-wire artist, mastering every step, rising above the pettiness of quotidian concerns by dint of a broad worldview. The winner of a popular televised talent show had angel wings placed on his shoulders. Hoisted 30 feet above the studio audience, he became master and commander of the sky. The Chinese, unlike us, never want to escape but to float above. Their standard definition of having it all -- the wuzidengke, or five benchmarks of money, sedan, house, wife, and child -- is as compelling in the 21st century as it was during earlier eras. Without these manifestations of societally mandated achievement, mainlanders feel cast off.

what chinese want doctoroff cover.jpg Material similarities between Chinese and Americans mask fundamentally different emotional impulses, which are rooted in radically different social structures. China's admiration of the American can-do spirit springs, ironically, from its Confucian heritage. The Chinese value system is a quixotic combination of regimentation and ambition. The clan, not the individual, is considered the basic building block of productivity, and human rights are either a theoretical abstraction or, even in good times, luxuries to be sacrificed to pragmatism. But Confucianism has always espoused social mobility. By mastering convention, Chinese have been able to, at least hypothetically, climb the hierarchy, the shape and structure of which are socially mandated.

Confucian egos are substantial, so American-style self-expression is all the rage. Brands that celebrate "me" -- from Nike's "Just Do It" spirit to Apple's "Think Different" rallying cry -- are embraced, particularly by the young urban elite. American universities have huge appeal. T-shirts sporting the latest hip hop slang are all the rage, and pop cultural divas who bow to no one -- Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Madonna, and, in perpetuity, Michael Jackson -- are revered. Sports figures such as NBA stars Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are idolized infinitely more than their Chinese brethren. Indeed, Yao Ming, still revered for his on-court exploits, is now referred to as "Boss Yao," a respectful but somewhat emotionally disengaged acknowledgment that the star-cum-businessman has been folded back into the system.

Yet these American icons, while adored, are rarely emulated. Few Chinese end up challenging the system. Tattoos are discreetly placed on the ankle or shoulder. Dye jobs are never over the top, with colors ranging from red to blond and sometimes Japan-cool gray. Women who flaunt their sexuality, in dress or attitude, are rarely taken home to Mom and Dad. Even the most opinionated employees rarely muster enough courage to overtly challenge the boss. American individualism is, in short, forbidden fruit, dangerously tempting. The Chinese remain intoxicated by the allure of genuine American self-expression but frustrated by its ultimate impossibility in their lives. As a result, attitudes toward the country, and its character, are mixed.

Excerpted from Tom Doctoroff's What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism and China's Modern Consumer (Palgrave Macmillan).