Pigging out in wealthy China

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Gong xi fa cai! Literally translated as "congratulations on growing wealthy," that's a traditional New Years greeting printed on cards and shop windows across China. And what a prosperous year it will be! China's 12-year zodiac cycle will turn to the year of the pig Feb. 18, accompanied by a great clatter of fireworks and banquet-busy chopsticks. This year is a special pig year, as the zodiac animals cross with the five elements (fire, water, earth, wood and gold) to bring us the once-every-60-years golden pig. In the literal mind-set of ancient China, that means we are entering a year of great material wealth and abundance, an auspicious time for business as well as for childbirth.

Abundance and prosperity are useful words for describing the mind-set prevalent across urban China. Even the most pessimistic expect the country's economic growth to continue until at least after the Olympics. The impact on consumer behavior is profound. It's visible at mealtime, when tables groan under platters of seafood and bottles of imported whiskey. The wealthy are of course leading this conspicuous consumption, but the growth is not restricted to the rich; our youth study, "ChinaWhispers," shows that 60% of 15- to 35-year-olds in Shanghai and Beijing have spent more than 1,000 Chinese yuan ($130) on a single piece of clothing. That's between a third and a quarter of a monthly salary, a remarkable number.

On its own, the sheer scale of the consumption is breathtaking. More interesting, however, is the impact on the psyche of young people. Their sense is that China has arrived. One young businessman sat me down a few weeks ago to say, "China has been a caterpillar for years. But now we are a butterfly, flying on wings made of economic strength."

That energizing confidence easily blurs, however, into naive overconfidence and even arrogance. At companies, rapid sales growth has led to rapid promotion, which results in 27-year-olds running multimillion-dollar accounts. There is a talent shortage for qualified workers, and smart people are hopping from job to job without learning the basics. A few years of that, and they open their own agencies, convinced they've learned all there is to know.

As we enter the year of the pig, my biggest hope is for young Chinese to look beyond immediate material wealth and plan for a long and sustainable future.

Hmmm. Maybe when pigs fly.

P.T. Black is a partner in Jigsaw International, a Shanghai boutique lifestyle-research agency that looks at the direction of change in China.
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