Anita Sun remembers the very first time she shopped online. It was the first day of college, and she read an article about a facial cleanser that would suit her oily skin. She hit the buy button and waited anxiously for the parcel to arrive.
Sun spent most of her teenage years at Hengshui High School in the Chinese rust-belt province of Hebei, a cram school notorious for placing students under military-style control to prepare them for gruelling college entrance exams. Moving to a university in Beijing was liberating, and the young woman embraced city life.
That facial cleanser turned out to be a disappointment, but the 21-year-old woman would soon make hundreds more orders. She followed influencers’ advice on buying floral skirts (“They are good at concealing your thick thighs”), trench coats (“Every girl should have one for the autumn”), and whitening serum (“Anti-ageing and whitening are key parts of one’s skincare routine”). At one point, she would spend an hour a day browsing the shopping site Taobao. Every month, she would spend all the pocket money given by her parents and take on a small debt on a credit service provided by Alipay.
But only two years later today, Sun would look back at those days and see someone who had been brainwashed by consumerism. She uninstalled Taobao from her phone, sold the clothes she rarely wore on an online second-hand marketplace, and quit going to movies and gaming rooms on weekends. She read up on minimalism and posted decluttering tips in an anti-consumerism forum, along with a meme depicting Soviet leaders Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin.
“I have finally woken up from all these scams,” Sun told VICE World News. “I want to put my energy on the more important things, things that make money for me.”
Sun is part of a nascent anti-consumerism campaign in China, a subculture that is gaining followers as young people reflect on the powerful shopping culture amid slowing economic growth and intensifying competition.
Before China opened up to the world in the 1980s, people had little spare money and few dining, fashion, and entertainment options. To the older generations who lived through the impoverished years, frugality was a survival tactic.
Sun grew up in a very different China, where the market economy was flourishing. Businesses in and outside the country had created all kinds of products to tap the wealth of an expanding middle class, and filled almost every corner of Chinese society with advertisements and marketing campaigns.
But some people, like Sun, are turning away from the material abundance they have, not out of necessity but personal choice. Just like their counterparts in developed countries, they believe the unlimited shopping options are not empowering consumers, but trapping the already burnt-out workers in ever-growing financial burdens and anxiety.
Shopping has been a much-celebrated pastime since economic reforms turned China into a manufacturing powerhouse. Owning glamorous clothes and the latest gadgets is a symbol of status and wealth. Its booming tech industry is a leading e-commerce innovator that sets trends for the rest of the world.
Advertising has penetrated every part of the Chinese cyberspace. A movie review on WeChat could end with a call for readers to buy formula milk. On Xiaohongshu, an Instagram-like platform, sponsored posts are so well-integrated that you cannot tell them apart from non-paid ones. On Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, mukbang hosts would pause in the middle of eating to promote medications for stomach pain. All the purchases could be done while you are watching the show.
Not to mention live streaming, which has evolved into an ultimate combination of entertainment and shopping with a $30 billion market. You would regularly find the country’s A-list stars, or Kim Kardarshian, staring at you from the screen, trying to talk you into buying everything from kitchenware to juice to facial masks. These days, tech giants are in fierce competition to dominate grocery shopping, which used to take place in wet markets.
Combine all this, and you’ll have Singles’ Day, China’s equivalent of Black Friday except that it’s bigger. Set for November 11 every year, Singles’ Day originated in the 1990s as an anti-Valentines' Day for people who struggled with finding a romantic partner, but has since been taken over by China’s e-commerce giants to create a day of splurge. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the supposedly one-day event has mushroomed into a three-week shopping extravaganza. E-commerce sites and individual vendors would offer limited-time discounts, and billions of packages would be shipped out by the end of the spree.
“Actually, our life is not as good as people had imagined. Our income is not that high, and there is too much overspending.”
The ubiquitous marketing efforts are prompting a small resistance from the young generation, as those who are experiencing economic uncertainties try to reject what they see as capitalistic exploitation. On Bilibili, China’s equivalent of YouTube, viral videos exposing the sins of consumerism feature Jack Ma on the cover image. On Douban, a social network popular with China’s cynical youth, anti-consumerist groups are recruiting fast.
There is a community called “Don’t Buy, Go Against Consumerism,” where some 300,000 members encourage one another to resist the latest shopping trends: Bubble tea is high in sugar, thus unnecessary. Most films are not worth the ticket price. Clothes promoted by influencers will soon fall out of fashion.
There is the “Insane Money-Saving Group,” with more than 580,000 members, where users share low-spending challenges like “living through a week with 100 yuan ($15.6).” “Did You Downgrade Your Consumption Today,” for people to discuss how to replace expensive products with cheaper ones, saw its membership double from 150,000 to more than 300,000 in the past year.
Several members of the groups told VICE World News they started to question their shopping habits during the pandemic, when they realized they could get by without many of the superfluous products they were buying in the past, especially at a time of economic uncertainty.
A 29-year-old owner of a dessert shop in Beijing, who gave her name as Susu, said worries about dwindling business during the pandemic prompted her to revamp the shopping habits that left her with no savings. In the past, she would buy three different colors of loose powders in one go, even though they looked the same on the face. Now, she embraces minimalism and makes her own lunch boxes from discounted groceries.
Gong Yu, a 28-year-old woman from the southwestern city of Chengdu, said her income had dropped after the pandemic hit the export industry she works in. As she pondered the need to take care of her ageing parents and pay for her own healthcare in the future (she said she might not get married ever), Gong realized she had to save more.
“Anti-consumerism is fueled by excessive consumerism,” she said. “Actually, our life is not as good as people had imagined. Our income is not that high, and there is too much overspending.”
The sense of pessimism about personal economic prospects is widespread among Chinese youth. The frustration has spawned viral terms like “involution,” which denotes how people are engaging in increasingly fierce competition within their own social class but are unable to move up the ladder.
The only way to escape the rat race, according to the more cynical ones, is to completely give up, or “lying flat.” Defying the much-celebrated value of hard work, advocates of “lying flat” say they want to slack off as much as possible. (There was a “lying flat” group on Douban as well, but it was shut down as members were discussing how the state and capitalists had exploited workers.)
Some economists have attributed the paradox of China’s still fast-rising economy and the creeping pessimism among citizens to its overreliance on building infrastructure and export as drivers of economic growth. In China, household disposable income only accounted for about 48 percent of the GDP in 2019, compared with the 2020 level of 83 percent in the United States and 77 percent in India. The contribution of private consumption to the economy is also lower in China compared with developed countries.
The leadership has responded to the chatter with a “common prosperity” drive aimed at allocating more wealth to the poor. In comments published last month, President Xi Jinping instructed officials to prevent social stagnation so everyone could actively participate in creating wealth instead of “lying flat.”
But researchers also argued that the anti-consumerism trend is also a natural result of decades of rapid economic growth. K. Cohen Tan, a researcher with the University of Nottingham Ningbo China who has studied Chinese youth culture, said that while most Chinese had little say in what they spent on during the country’s impoverished years, middle-class Chinese are now embracing a diversity of lifestyle choices, including anti-consumerism, because they want to have agency over their shopping.
Just as people in the West are turning to minimalism and the tiny-house movement, Chinese people are attracted to anti-consumerism partly due to a sense of dwindling social mobility, Tan said. “This is also to try to give a sense of meaning to what they're doing to their lives, in spite of a perceived lack of opportunities for upward social mobility,” he said.
The leadership has so far not expressed worries about anti-consumerist thought. Authorities seem more concerned about reining in the power of tech giants than sustaining the popularity of Singles’ Day. Ahead of the festival, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology called on e-commerce sites to curb spam text messages. The government has also stepped up oversight of tech companies’ use of algorithms to boost spending.
But the aversion to shopping can become a problem for the government if it gains more traction. In order to make China a stronger economic and political power, the Communist Party wants Chinese people to work hard, have more children, and spend money. The party has rolled out a “dual circulation” strategy to reduce the country’s reliance on foreign trade, or “external circulation,” and place more emphasis on domestic consumption.
Bombarded with all the Singles’ Day offers, many consumers are indeed excited to participate. The top two livestream sales stars pre-sold a total of 19 billion Chinese yuan ($3 billion) worth of products on the first day of this year’s Singles’ Day campaign, which kicked off on Oct. 20 on Taobao and rival site JD.com.
In the thrifty communities, some members plan to stay away from the shopping extravaganza. Others are struggling between the attractive offers and their anti-consumerism pledges. “SOS! I’m cursed and want to buy an exercise bike,” someone wrote in a recent post. “I spent nearly 4,000 yuan ($625) on Singles’ Day,” another person said. “That’s my entire month’s salary… what should I do?”
Sun, the university student in Beijing, said she was determined not to buy anything besides tissue paper and sanitary pads. She recently repaired her six-year-old slippers with glue and sewed a button back onto her pajamas. The screen of her three-year-old smartphone was cracked, but Sun planned to use it for two more years.
“It’s not that I really want to save money, but that I’ve realized I already owned enough,” Sun said. “Consumerism has created all those needs to stimulate spending. I don’t actually have those needs.”
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