The FT recently ran a piece by Scheherazade Daneshkhu and Arash Massoudi on the wave of Chinese companies buying Western food producers, in response to Chinese consumers’ increasing demand for higher-quality (and presumably safer) Western food brands. “The reason for the wave of dealmaking,” say the authors, “is China’s transition from an export-led economy hungry for energy, natural resources and infrastructure into one driven by a surging consumer class.” In this new consumer class, they add, “each person is eating on average 40 per cent more calories a day than in 1980 with a “shift to a more ‘affluent’ diet” – away from basic staples to livestock-based products, such as meat and dairy.”
To anyone who spends time in China, these comments are no surprise. I always say that China is on its way to becoming the U.S. of Asia. The most superficial features of the consumer class in China, from what I have seen personally, are a focus on brands, an obsession with personal appearance, a desire to separate themselves physically in the suburbs, a love of cars, a taste for fast food, and as the authors, note, an increasingly western diet high in fat and calories. In fact, along with India, China is one of the few Asian countries where one sees overweight people on a regular basis, as well as locals working out in shiny health clubs that are the equal of anything in New York.
If all this sounds like another well-known super-power, then that’s surely no coincidence. I am sure somewhere in the State Department, there is a group of people very happy to see China go down the same road the U.S. has traveled sine the 1950’s. The question is if this trend will continue or if, at some point, the “Chinese Dream” will diverge in some way from its Western inspiration. My gut says no, due to the clearly demonstrated power of Western marketing strategies (now skilfully adapted in China) to create the same desires and aspirations in China that were common in the U.S. over the last five decades. Many people remark that visiting the most modern parts of Shanghai is now not much different from visiting any modern city in the U.S. or Europe (except it all looks nicer in China, actually). I wonder if along with the gleaming malls and Apple stores, China will soon enough have the same obese, over-fed population so common in this country.