Imagine you’re taking a walk down Nanjing road in Shanghai. Start at People’s square. This expansive parade ground used to be a horse racing track until the communist party outlawed racing and gambling in 1949 and flattened it for the glory of the new China. Now it’s filled with the Mao-jacket clad, elderly survivors of the cultural revolution, who’ve finally reclaimed the space for leisure. They cheerfully sit playing chess and dancing to 1950s classics scratchily playing from an old portable cassette player, impervious to people walking past.
Dodge the gridlock of new cars as you’re crossing the recently constructed six-lane Tibet Rd onto Nanjing road proper. Quite suddenly, thousands of black haired people bustle around you humming like bees in this hive of neon stimulation. Families gaze in wonder at a blue illuminated aquarium window display in a department store. A giant screen blares advertisements 20 metres above your head. Young people in brightly coloured outfits sit in Starbucks, laughing over iced coffee and comparing bargains.
China’s transition from a centrally controlled command economy to a market-led economy has got to be one of the most dramatic stories of the 20th century – and certainly one with the most far-reaching consequences. Since Deng Xioping’s market reforms of the 1970s, economic growth has lifted the average per capita income significantly, and dragged the poverty rate down from 85 per cent in 1981 to 16 per cent in 2005, as well as widening the rift between rich and poor.
China’s population has grown from 93,267,000 in 1976 – the year Mao died – to now include more than 1.27 billion mostly urban dwellers. China has been variously described as the world’s fastest growing economy, the world’s hero during the GFC, the next ‘Great Power,’ and the biggest new market for, well, pretty much everything.
But China’s transformation extends beyond the jargon of economists and political scientists. Lives there are different. Values are changing. Power relationships have shifted. Interest in the Communist Party is waning, as it’s state-sponsored successor, the market, takes the limelight. Consumerism is the new ‘ism’ in this world.