In the past three decades, as China has liberalised and opened up its economy, it has travelled from a country inhabited by comrades to one now dwelt in by consumers. And as University of Oxford academic Karl Gerth makes clear in this crisply written and accessible overview, the world has yet to get used to what the rise of the Chinese consumer means.
First, there is the issue of sheer scale. In the space of a generation, China has added about 300 million people able to buy computers, mobiles and the kind of goods that are regarded as necessities in the West. In 2009, it replaced the US as the world's largest user of cars. The implications of this for its environment, as the final chapter makes clear, are sobering. Were China to have anything like the per capita car ownership of the US, at least based on today's technology, then it would use up more oil than the world currently produces.
Marketisation penetrates almost every area of life in the People's Republic. From a command economy only four decades ago, where bureaucrats made decisions on almost every aspect of economic life, now it seems that almost everything is up for sale. There is a market for new brides (China is in an era where there is a severe imbalance between males and females, and a critical lack of potential wives); for male prostitutes (to serve the needs of wives of the rich neglected by their husbands spending long periods away with their mistresses); for endangered species of animals illegally made into medicine; and for organs including kidneys and livers. All of these raise moral issues, and questions about the rigour of governance - questions that the market simply rides roughshod over. It is there merely to set a price, not make any judgements.
But some judgements have to be made. China's consumer revolution has taken a mighty toll on the country's environment, with water usage being the most urgent and tangible symbol. Rising meat consumption means more need for grain to feed cattle and sheep; manufacturing is sucking large areas of the country dry of what little water is left. Meanwhile, massive increases in bottled water put an even greater burden on the environment through the costs of transportation, purification and then the disposal of plastic containers. Many aspects of China's current growth model are simply unsustainable.
In the brave new world that Gerth describes, the real and the unreal are interchangeable. Counterfeit goods flow from the same factories that produce luxury brands. But fakes are no joke, as the tale of poisoned powdered milk that ended up killing dozens of babies in 2004 shows. Modern China can indeed be simultaneously a shoppers' paradise and a consumers' hell.
This is not a straightforward lecture on how China needs to scale back its hunger. In his conclusion, Gerth notes that Western countries were the ones from which China caught the consumer contagion (although in a fascinating chapter he shows how much of this came via Taiwan). They have shown little real desire to sacrifice their living standards to make way for aspiring consumers from the developing world. Now the genie is out of the bottle, China and the rest of the world will need to deal with the huge challenge of how to allow its citizens to become consumers like those in the West, without simply using up the whole planet.
As China Goes, So Goes the World: How Chinese Consumers are Transforming Everything
By Karl Gerth
Hill & Wang, 2pp, £18.99
Published 1 November 2010