THE AMERICANIZATION OF CHINA
U.S. culture has invaded the mainland
and China will never be the same
By Ron Gluckman/Shanghai, Beijing, Qingdao and Hong Kong
AT LUNCHTIME IN SHANGHAI WORKERS rush to
a rather nondescript building on Nan Dan Dong Road. There, they enter a wild
"stock" market. Buying is fierce; a rugby-style scrum ensues as customers press
forward, waving wads of cash. Shanghainese have had a passion for trading since long
before the city began experimenting with a bourse in 1986. Yet this frenzy emanates far
from the formal stock exchange floor. Here, in southern Shanghai's Sino Building, a bull
run of a different sort rages. Eager buyers are chanting orders for the current hot play:
Glister, Glister, Glister.
Don't bother looking in the business pages; Glister is neither trading company nor
infrastructure play. It's a toothpaste, and not even a name brand. Nonetheless, customers
in Shanghai are investing whopping sums in Glister, at five times the price of Colgate,
one of China's best-selling imports.
Buyers also snap up shampoo and dish soap at equally lofty sums, often 10 times more
than comparable local brands. Why the premium? Packaging most likely. With the exception
of the Sino Building's name, everything here is wrapped in real or metaphorical red, white
and blue. The color scheme is meant to convey the same message as the company name, Amway,
short for the American Way.
Some say the U.S. doesn't sell in China. Don't tell that to Amway. Since starting up on
the mainland in earnest in 1995, this direct-sales firm has reported astounding gains,
often triple-digit quarterly increases. And the figures are no fluke. Avon, the first
direct-sales company in China, has 85,000 agents knocking on doors and yurts in every
region except Tibet, racking up sales of $68 million in 1996. A year before, Mary Kay
opened its first cosmetics plant outside the U.S. in Hangzhou. Demand has been so keen
that the Texas-based firm has already broken ground on a new China factory, 15 times
larger than the first one.
Cosmetics are popular with China's fashion-conscious crowd, but entrepreneurial
opportunities are an even bigger draw. Amway, Avon and Mary Kay all sell products through
agents, who gladly pay for the training and sales kits. Not everyone in China craves
richer hair, but almost everyone wants to get rich. The big draw is the chance to acquire
what is now an irresistible commodity: an American association.
Few brushing with Glister expect anything more than white teeth. Yet some will soon be
rolling in the pink. Mary Kay plans to award its first "career car" as a bonus
to its top China sales agent. It won't be a Cadillac, like those given to Mary Kay's
American beauty moguls, but a livid-pink mainland-made Volkswagen Santana. To those who
say the American Dream is dead, Cecilia Yang, Mary Kay's vice president for sales and
marketing in China, points with a smile to single mom Gu Mei, 32, a Mary Kay "beauty
consultant" who earns over $8,500 per month. But the attraction is even bigger than
money, says James Watson, anthropology professor at Harvard University, who has been
visiting China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. "The Chinese want the
American lifestyle, a modern lifestyle, the way they think Americans live."
And why not? After a half century of isolation under the Communist Party, the Chinese
are desperate to catch up. "Chinese, young and old, are tired of political
movements," says a Western correspondent in Beijing. The American Dream may be frayed
at the edges, he adds, but Chinese still want the amenities associated with it: a car, a
house filled with appliances, in short, the good life. "America represents an ideal
in China," says King Lai, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising China. "For
the Chinese, it's the lifestyle that they aspire to, the spirit of America."
see enough of it. Mainland billboards, store fronts and television commercials all extol
the American mystique, from the macho Marlboro cowboy to the slam dunking of Nike's
"Flyer Qiao Dan," known elsewhere as basketball star Michael Jordan. His Airness
actually outranked Mao in one recent mainland popularity survey.
Beijing's political bosses must be blistering, as this infatuation counters party
directives still on the books designed to curb Western decadence. The tirades are hardly
new; they have been part of the political ping-pong between the world's superpowers since
the days when China anxiously awaited each annual U.S. decision on Most-Favored-Nation
trading status. Once the World Cup of Confrontation, America's MFN debate raged again this
year, although at a less-fevered pitch than after Tiananmen. But the real debate has
shifted to the sidelines, where world opinion is constantly being molded in the tug of war
between the superpowers.
In one prominent case this year, the publication of The Coming Conflict with China, by
Richard Bernstein and Ross Munro, set off a Sino-American kerfuffle. The two Western
journalists, who worked in Beijing in the 1980s, depict China's emergence in menacing
tones that plays well to paranoid Western ears. The Chinese fought back with Behind the
Demonization of China, a mainland blockbuster by Xinhua reporter Li Xiguang, who spent six
months at The Washington Post. His book details an alleged campaign among American media
to muddy China's image.
The mutual sniping is part of the growing pains in maturing U.S.-China relations. For
Beijing, though, great face is at stake as it seeks to gain equal footing with the U.S.
Perhaps that helps explain the vitriol of recent campaigns against consumerism, which, to
Beijing's chagrin, have had little impact on the masses. Beijing has had much greater
success using politics as a wedge in negotiations over airliner purchases and auto plants,
as Boeing and General Motors can attest. This is a remarkable gauge of how much the
mainland has changed over the last decade: Beijing is more capable of bullying concessions
from foreign firms than reining in consumerism sweeping its once-constrained and centrally
The irony must irk even more; it is Uncle Sam who is driving much of this consumerism.
"Despite what Beijing says, the Chinese can't get enough of Americana," a U.S.
businessman based in Shanghai says. "It's created a real bizarre schism. The
government may paint a picture of America as a devil country, but the average Chinese
looks at America with total fascination."
To be sure, there remains a lot of anti-American resentment among older people,
Communist Party stalwarts and some intellectuals, particularly because of the often
patronizing U.S. rhetoric toward China. But even among the latter group, feelings are
mixed. Intellectuals may despise America's pop culture while appreciating its academic
freedoms, legal traditions and constitution. And the negative or suspicious anti-U.S.
currents are increasingly being engulfed by a rising tide of Americaphilia. This is
particularly true among Chinese urban youth, hailed by advertising studies as "the
Lucky Generation." Growing up in a new era of openness, they have known no natural
hardships or government campaigns of repression.
generation's appetite for fashionable products is matched by its growing earning
potential. You see members of the Lucky Generation parading the latest fashions nightly at
lively discos like the "New York, New York" club in Shanghai. "I come here
most nights," says Willy, a 20-something trendoid dressed, like his fellow Chinese
buddies, in designer black. "We like to dance and to party," he says. "We
mainly like the American style."
In the coastal city of Qingdao, spray-painted graffiti makes the Ocean Disco appear
more like a New York subway station than a dance hall. At least, that's the impression
until you take a closer look. The walls are neatly marked with inane expressions like
"toy," "fish" and "pencil." As I jot down the juvenilia, a
giggling Chinese girl comes past and points. "I love it," she says. "It's
Cool or not, and government directives aside, middle- and upper-class Chinese kids are
tuned to the same MTV-style wavelength as the rest of the world. But the real concern to
the party cadres is this certainty: the Lucky Generation isn't alone, it is only a beat or
two ahead of the rest of the nation.
China's main cities are already under siege. Kids munch Big Macs at over 130
McDonald's, content in the gaze not of Mao but "Good Uncle," a.k.a. Ronald
McDonald. China's yuppies do the same at three Hard Rock Cafes, inundated by memorabilia
and the music of once-banned Western rock idols. They dine at TGIF and eat dessert at
TCBY. The former is an acronym for what would once have been an aberration in the
Communist Party, Thank God It's Friday; the latter is a frozen yogurt franchise based in
U.S. President Bill Clinton's stomping ground of Little Rock, Arkansas. Soon residents of
Boston and Beijing will have this in common: takeaway from Boston Chicken or Domino's
Pizza. Chinese urbanites can already buy anything from stereo systems to snack foods at
U.S. mega-stores Wal-Mart and Pricesmart (known in the U.S. as Price Club).
China's American embrace is most fervent at the cathedral to Yankee culture, the
cinema. Beijing still allows distribution of a handful of imported flicks each year, but
the ration is no longer a forced diet of scratchy Hollywood flops. These days Chinese
eschew the patriotic reels still churned out by government filmmakers for the latest
Sylvester Stallone and Tom Cruise blockbusters, which laud Western excesses.
Mainland TV, undergoing its own revolution, offers another shock to seasoned
sinologists. Thanks partly to satellite TV, Chinese soaps and historical serials now
compete against programs that would have seemed unimaginable only a few years ago:
episodes of Baywatch and The X-Files. Soon, millions of mainland kids will be watching Da
Niao, Big Bird's Chinese cousin, in Zhima Jie, a Shanghai version of Sesame Street.
This summer will see the debut of The Little Rascals, a 1950s U.S. comedy series.
Dubbed in Mandarin, 54 episodes will blanket airwaves, twice daily on 250 cable and
regional stations, according to Tom Bus, general manager of Sino Universal International
in Shanghai. Quotas also restrict foreign content on TV, otherwise there would be no end
to U.S. programming. "If there was no regulation, we could easily fill 1 million
hours nationwide," Bus says. Little Rascals comes from King World International,
which also distributes such all-American fare as Wheel of Fortune, The Oprah Winfrey Show
and The Geraldo Rivera Show. Bus has no compunction about peddling this type of
candy-for-the-brain programming. "Game shows would be hits here," he says.
"The Chinese love gambling and games."
Some can't get too much of a good thing, as is amply demonstrated at the American Dream
Park, the ultimate celebration of Americana in China. Opened last fall on 28 hectares in
the outskirts of Shanghai, the American-equipped amusement park replicates stereotypical
U.S. attractions to such a degree that Disneyland seems international in comparison. Among
the offerings: an American Heritage area, the ubiquitous Wild West town -- complete with
cowboys and Indians -- and a contemporary section dubbed USA Today.
American image is what people in China want," says Robert Lamb, a U.S. amusement-park
expert who oversaw the opening of the $120 million theme park; others are planned for
Chengdu, Wuhan, Beijing and Guangzhou. "Just look at the kids in China. They see
American films, have American haircuts, wear blue jeans," Lamb adds. "America
Of course, this is hardly new, or unique to China. Youth everywhere yearn for what is
called American culture, but is really an amalgamation of global youth culture, taking
root wherever media is sophisticated and free enough to spread its seeds. Levis, Madonna,
Marlboro cigarettes, cool cars and loud rock music are components, but the culture itself
is a global milkshake. Perhaps its consumption seems outrageous in China because of the
past isolation or ongoing restrictions. But the truly remarkable thing is the speed of
transformation, a breathtaking revolution in possibility, from hopelessness to choice, all
in a matter of years. After all, it's only been a decade since the first Kentucky Fried
Chicken opened in Beijing.
This is not what Deng Xiaoping had in mind when he spoke of socialism with Chinese
characteristics. Retired U.S. general Colin Powell summed it up best when, commenting on
the growth of home shopping on mainland TV, he issued this wry war cry: "There is no
way communism can compete with a salad shooter for $9.95." (Salad shooters are
much-derided icons of Americana: plastic gadgets that cut up salad fixings.)
No wonder the big cities of the Middle Kingdom increasingly resemble the Midwest. True,
there is no Saturday wrestling -- yet -- but bowling is all the rage and basketball is
represented by two professional leagues in cooperation with corporate sponsors like Nike,
sports equipment maker Spalding and Budweiser.
Though soccer is the most popular sport in China, basketball is the fastest-growing.
Not surprisingly, sports-gear manufacturers are focusing on the 200 million who already
play the game, while sports-shoe makers are lustily eyeing the hoopsters' 400 million
growing feet. Meanwhile, Shanghai officials have considered a ban on new bowling alleys.
The city had six lanes in 1980; by the end of 1996 there were almost 1,500. China now
accounts for 30%-40% of bowling manufacturer Brunswick's trade, says the company's
Asia-Pacific marketing director Andrew Shipman. "The American connection is a big
part of our business," he says. "We promote that. We see it as a big
Not all American companies agree with the U.S.-is-best thesis. In fact, many shy away
from highlighting any U.S. association. Both Nike and Coca-Cola present themselves as
global, rather than U.S., brands. "Overt American advertising is a recipe for
disaster," warns Soames Hines, managing director of advertising agency J. Walter
Thompson in Shanghai. "Being American carries baggage, particularly in places like
Beijing. It's much better to position yourself as an international brand." Or is it?
"American does stand out in some areas," says Michael McCune, Shanghai partner
of distribution specialists China Link, "particularly wherever the ad campaign has to
do with attitude, the brash American style."
Whatever angle they play up, advertising is a Chinese boom industry. Between 1990 and
1994, ad spending doubled each year. By 2000, ad spending should top $22 billion -- a
tenfold increase over 1994 -- according to American ad agency J. Walter Thompson. All
firms advertise, of course, but few do so with the fervor of the Americans. Seven of
China's Top 10 advertisers belong to U.S. consumer-products giant Procter and Gamble. Such
spending is typical, as many established U.S. firms see China not only as a vast market
but as a place where they can recreate their bygone glory days. To Americans, Big Macs are
just, well, Big Macs. But in China, a near identical double burger with cheese and
"special sauce" is welcomed today as an innovation. Even better for McDonald's,
it and like-minded companies can inject new life into its old jingles and ad campaigns.
Scores of American products are being reborn and repackaged for mass mainland consumption.
To get a sense of the marketing mania, stroll up Shanghai's Nanjing Lu, the major
shopping street in China. Looking eastward, toward the Bund, the city's financial hub, Mao
would be bemused; the view is all red. Not the communist colors, but the corporate cachet
of Coke. For block after block, streets, bus stands and overhead banners all pledge
allegiance to America's -- and China's -- No. 1 cola. "From some angles,"
chuckles a French trader, "it looks like Coke is sponsoring Shanghai."
Yet turn the corner and the view becomes more startling. You leave Coke street and step
into a district swirling with white and green; ads for Salem cigarettes. Turn again, and
waltz down an avenue enveloped by red, white and blue Pepsi ads. "Marketing has no
sophistication, no innovation," complains a Shanghai consultant. "It's all
There is a precedent; America in the 1950s and 1960s, when manufacturers pushed brand
names heavily through TV, and shaped store inventories with big promotions and aggressive
control of regional distribution channels. This was the golden age for brand marketing in
America. Many are expecting a repeat in modern China, which suffers from similarly
underdeveloped distribution lines and a rapidly expanding consumer base. "Right now,
American investment isn't moving in spurts, it's a flood," says an analyst in
Shanghai, where an American Chamber formed in 1991 with 110 members. It's due to break the
1,000 level any day now. More than half of the top 100 U.S. companies have some presence
Many merely replicate their winning formulas on the mainland -- to mixed results. One
company that prides itself on ignoring cultural variations is Interwood Marketing, the TV
sales firm with the goofy products, such as auto-massage beds, miracle stain removers and
instant button-repair devices. Interwood, which is actually based in Toronto, uses the
same commercials the world over: loud voice-overs shouting the attributes of the products
while American actors wince and smile, followed by the price and the inevitable,
'Operators are standing by.' "Our commercials look exactly the same in China as in
the West," boasts Peter Lee, general manager of Interwood's Hong Kong operation.
"That's the magic of marketing. You take a TV commercial that works, and just change
the language, price and ordering information." People are people, he adds.
"Their skin might be different, but marketing is the same."
China's exposure to Interwood is extracting a hefty toll. A glue-less fastener sells in
China at twice the Hong Kong price, which is considerably higher than in the West.
Interwood's trademark stomach-muscle builder, the ab-shaper, is $120 in China -- over a
month's average wage. But the fact that the ab-shaper is expensive and difficult to
acquire may only increase its allure to China's elite. A desire for such products will
spur the spread of debt, things like lay-away plans and, of course, credit cards, already
a booming business.
Many Chinese see in this cycle of consumption a devious plot. "The American image
has penetrated into China, especially with the young," says Zhu Wenhui, a research
associate at Hong Kong Polytechnic University's China Business Center. The influence is
not just from foreign films and mass media. "We often use American books in Chinese
schools and many of our teachers are educated in the U.S.; the teachers who go to the U.S.
to study teach what they have learned," Lee says. "It's both an accident and a
plan, this exposure to the American Way. This is all part of selling the American Way in
the larger picture. It's like a weapon."
Harvard Professor Watson retorts: "Who's to say it's American culture? Why not
Japanese culture or Chinese culture? Kids grow up in China and recognize Ronald McDonald
as part of Chinese culture." With the help of researchers in Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul
and Taipei, Watson completed a study of the globalization of pop culture and consumerism.
Using McDonald's as a model, his conclusions are to be published as a book, Golden Arches
East; McDonald's in East Asia. "For families in China, McDonald's is just part of the
world experience, part of the internet and all the rest of the modern world," he
says. "It's maybe not for the older generation, but there is a feeling that if their
child can eat at McDonald's then he can go out in the world and succeed."
That sense of connection can be seen in the Sino Building at lunchtime, where mobs push
up to cashiers, desperate to invest not necessarily in whiter teeth, but a brighter
future. Lured by the latest get-rich scheme, some get instead a costly dose of reality.
"I'm resigning," says Xie Lili, a part-time typist, pushing a box of unused
Amway products across the counter. "I've tried to sell these things to my friends and
colleagues, but they say they're too expensive. I've tried for 11 months." Xie
returns her investment pack for a full refund of $86, shaking her head in amazement at
another U.S. innovation, the money-back guarantee.
For Zhu Weijin, selling Amway products has also been a struggle. But in flogging
shampoo and toothpaste, he sees a chance to escape his dreary daytime job. "My goal
is to do this full time," he says, surrounded by red-white-and-blue boxes. At the
Amway office, they suggest the American Dream, but Zhu finds nothing foreign in what he
feels. "I want to be my own boss," he says proudly. "This is my
Ron Gluckman is an
American journalist who has been based in Hong Kong for six years. For some of his other
stories from China, please click on the Jews of
Shanghai, Chinese wineries, Dream Park, Stuck inside a Shanghai
Harmonica Factory and Old China Hands.
The photos on this page are by Graham Uden, a British photographer in Hong Kong who
often works with Ron Gluckman. For other samples of Uden's work, see Vietnam
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