Some economists are bemoaning the problem of inadequate consumption in China. In their eyes, consumption has yet to drive the country's economic growth, like exports and investment. In the wake of the ongoing global recession, consumption is assumed to be a more effective remedy than ever before.
To some extent, this so-called "under-consumption trend" can be attributed to a deeply rooted, prevailing concept of the Chinese nation. For centuries, people in China upheld diligence and thriftiness in running their households. Parents, meanwhile, invariably bequeathed whatever they had earned in life to their descendants—whether property, money, or other types of material wealth.
Such an idea of leading a frugal life and practicing economy to benefit the next generation is still favored—especially by older generations.
It should also be noted, however, that mass consumption had all but disappeared during the first three decades of the People's Republic, when the nation prioritized its shift from an impoverished, backward agricultural state into building a solid, modern industrial economy.
At that time, consumption was simply seen as a means of subsistence, given the country's weak economic base and underrated social productivity. Rather, the Chinese people had neither the ways nor means for adequate consumption, as a great number of consumer items, including even some daily necessities, were either rationed or in sparse supply.
Along with the reform and opening-up initiatives of the late 1970s, China entered a period of speedy growth and continued prosperity in its recent history. Not only has its economy been notably enlivened and social productivity immensely lifted, a much wider range of consumer goods also have entered its market in great abundance.
Today, with livelihoods further improved, consumption patterns among Chinese people have also diversified. Apart from enjoying material comforts, such as eating delicacies, wearing top-brand clothes, purchasing durables, housing and cars, they are also ready to spend on tourism, entertainment, fitness, post-school education, etc., in order to pursue a more colorful and nourishing spiritual life.
Rarely do Chinese save up to make a long-overdue purchase: More and more are taking out loans or credit for expensive, preferred items, even if it results in a heavy debt that may require a lifetime to pay off.
Admittedly, there are also instances of consumption in the other extreme: Some nouveaux-riches indulge in an overly extravagant lifestyle, spending without restraint—not out of actual need, but for plain ostentation.
As China progresses, so does the concept of consumption. While the change seems better fit with our times, diligence and thrift—as in the past—should still be deemed a great virtue for the nation.
What should be encouraged is a more rational attitude toward consumption—namely, consumption with moderation, along with efforts to avoid lavish and wasteful spending. To this end, consumption will not be carried out exclusively for the purpose of stimulating the economy, but also for the benefits of environmental protection and resources preservation.
The government, on the other hand, can also improve the nation's social security and welfare system, so that many more people will feel relieved at their consumption, without having to put away perhaps a huge part of their savings for potentially costly expenditures such as education and medical treatment.