China’s Growing Sense of Consciousness

03 Nov 2011|Added Value

The Wenchuan Earthquake, a 2008 disaster that claimed almost 70,000 lives in China’s South-west province of Sichuan, was a turning point for China. In addition to the tragic consequences for those directly affected, the event also reawakened a profound sense of social consciousness from Chinese citizens nationwide.

Uncharacteristically open reportage of the event by the Chinese media provided a direct point of access for captive audiences throughout the nation. A resulting groundswell of concern created a level of private donations previously unseen in China.

Timed amid a seemingly endless flow of economic achievements, and in the middle of preparations for the Beijing Olympics, the tragedy came as an abrupt wake-up call for a nation so heavily preoccupied with the pursuit of progress.

Bai Yansong's book, "Are You Happy?"

Swelling national consciousness, kick started by the tragedy, served to cause a rethink of the idea of wealth in China – a move towards responsible wealth. Local publications took up the theme of how financially individuals need to better “serve the people”, echoing the words familiar in the Communist years. Taking their cues from Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, China’s new elite started devoting themselves personally in charitable causes, particularly in China’s poorer areas. This has included the popularity of 4WD travel tours, where participants spend time with disadvantaged children and families.

However a fundamental rethink also occurred within China’s burgeoning middle class. With the financial dream of “one house, one car” recently morphing into “more houses, more cars”, the benchmark appears to have plateau-ed. The popularity of broadcaster Bai Yansong’s book “Are you Happy?” suggests a wider malaise and sense of commercial exhaustion. In the book, Bai argues that Chinese people have lost their strong sense of belief (and sense of happiness) due overemphasis on the pursuit of financial goals.

Zhang Ziyi and Aaron Kwok in "Till Death Do Us Part"

Another sign of interest in social causes is the nationwide release of “Till Death do us Part” – a film based on the love story of two HIV sufferers, groundbreaking due to the negative subject area. In a local film industry typically risk averse and politically cautious, the production is banking on patronage of more socially-conscious moviegoers. Additional interest is created by the leading roles played by Zhang Ziyi and Aaron Kwok, two of China’s most glamorous stars.

Online culture in China is also doing its part to change perceptions on social issues. Imagery and video of individuals indiscriminately or distastefully flaunting their wealth has become the butt of ridicule on bulletin boards. The most infamous and tragic, was the case of Li Qiming who drunkenly ran down and killed a fellow student in his Volkswagen, then claiming impunity on the grounds his father was rich and politically influential. Well-publicized events like these are making crass wealth a distasteful eyesore for Chinese consumers expectant of concomitant cultural development to support their economic prosperity.

As a response, Chinese are engaging in a deeper level of connoisseurship with brands and products. Part personal differentiation in an increasingly condensed market and part justification – local consumers are motivated to expose a real story and commitment of the brands they choose. Put simply, the idea of ‘face’ is shifting from a simple sign-posting of wealth to a strong sense of responsibility and culture.

There appears to be a fundamental reassessment occurring about the meaning, and value, of culture. The focus of introspection has shifted from a reaction to foreign influence, to a focus on revitalizing powerful elements within Chinese society. This internal impetus can be seen across different generations in China from youth retro trends celebrating indigenous fashions, to an increasing focus on Chinese heritage in luxury goods and tourism.

While China’s new rich are not going to give up their Gucci just yet, increasing social and national consciousness does raise some interesting consequences for brands. Corporate responsibility is developing into a powerful element of marketing that can address local relevance and tap participation to fully engage more conscious consumers. At a wider level, there is a demand from Chinese consumers for ways to help them explore, access and enjoy aspects of life beyond striving for economic goals. Brands and technologies that can facilitate a greater engagement with society will stand a strong possibility of leveraging new seeds of consciousness in China.

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Written by Jerry Clode, Cultural Insight, Added Value

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