Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos
Beside the Fifth Ring Road, one of the superhighways encircling Beijing like concentric shock waves radiating outward from the epicenter of an earthquake, sits an enormous big-box installation, one of thousands now proliferating throughout China. The parking lots flanking it are gridlocked with late-model cars and ruddy-faced peasants-turned-workers pushing long, snake-like trains of shopping carts toward the entrance.
A Map of Walmart in China
From sea cucumbers in Dalian to upscale Sam's Clubs in Shanghai, Walmart stores vary from province to province.
Stepping into the building’s vast, windowless interior, I have the sense of entering an oversize Fabergé egg. But instead of refined scenes of aristocratic czarist life, I encounter thousands of middle-class Chinese engaging in the newest, and already the most inalienable, right in this erstwhile “People’s Republic”: shopping. This is the Shijingshan Shanmuhui, a Sam’s Club, one of the 352 stores that Walmart now operates in 130 Chinese cities.
Just inside the doorway, a scrum of salespeople hawk everything from roasted sweet potatoes to fitness-club memberships and massage chairs. Throngs of energetic customers push overflowing carts (fitted with data screens touting the latest bargains) making that familiar sound of wobbling rubber wheels on concrete. Indeed, its familiarity makes me feel I’ve been astrally projected back to Walmart’s natal place—Bentonville, Arkansas, which the current president and CEO, Michael Duke, recently referred to as the “Lighthouse of the Ozarks.”