Originally published in L’Espresso, 4 April 2013
Fear and individualism. These are the two key words that guide the ever more mature Chinese consumers living the great coastal megacities. Of the two, fear is the principal motivator. Fear of cities that are 700 times more polluted than New York. Fear of powdered milk that kills or leaves babies disabled. Fear of swallowing plasticizer along with their favourite traditional liquor. This fear is reinforced by a government that to this day has kept data on environmental contamination a state secret. The 450 million Chinese that can afford it look to imported good as a means to avoid being poisoned: western beef is now more popular than pork, a traditional staple of Chinese cuisine; saltwater fish are the only alternative to freshwater fish, since there isn’t a river left in China that isn’t polluted; foreign dairy products, and even wine. Wine, but only the red variety, is considered the healthy alternative to the sorghum liquor that traditionally accompanied official dinners. “The Chinese are beginning to drink it regularly,” explains Gao Zhen of investment fund Mandarin Capital: “Initially it was because it was exotic, and then because of the government’s recent campaign against excessive spending that led to a drop in sales of the liquor, which is more expensive. Now, it is because people really like it.”
Cities are filled with health food stores selling organic salads and fresh fruit drinks. It doesn’t matter what country the management hails from, only the modern images of health, lightness, and youth that they project. A bit like a dietary equivalent of Apple, the American high tech brand adored by young people that was just recently forced to apologize following an attack by a government that would like nothing more than to make room for local companies.
But this government tactic is not guaranteed to work. A growing number of Chinese people are looking abroad for their technology and personal grooming purchases, but only if the price to quality relationship suits them. The attention being paid by wealthy Chinese to their food selection today is also reflected in their choice of apparel, the true business card in a society always on the move, where one can change jobs as often as they change their wardrobe. Now that the frenzy over luxury brands is over (but only among the young and wealthy consumers in the big cities, and not in the rest of the country), people are looking for products that will set them apart from the masses and can show their individuality, or maybe their mood or emotions. “I think the time has come to organize a design week in Tianjin (a two hour drive from Beijing) in order to introduce lesser-known European brands to the city,” says Li Yunfei, a Chinese businessman that has revamped the old Italian quarter of Tianjin, where he has opened the club “Nuovo Cinema Paradiso,” a place where he loves to see business men from both countries meet each other: “For Italy, I would like to bring less famous clothing brands and see them spread in a minor city that is growing quickly like Tianjin.”
The danger for Italian entrepreneurs is the underestimation of a population that is not only absorbing Western tastes, but also modifying and upgrading them to suit their own customs. “Getting back to food, pizza today is considered by the Chinese to be something that is consumed during lunch breaks, a replacement for the traditional box of stir fried rice and vegetables,” explains Gao Zhen. Certainly not a meal for a night out. “Unlike a Häagen-Dazs store, Italian-run gelaterie are opening as frequently as they are closing, because the Chinese eat their ice cream like they drink their coffee, sitting down’” adds Giulia Ziggiotti of the Beijing Chamber of Commerce. “For them it is a moment of leisure, to socialize and see and be seen. But the rent for a large store in a strategic position is very high and the numbers never work out for a simple gelataio.” Being small is difficult in the house of the giant.