Gerth writes with a light touch, but he shows deep knowledge of Chinese consumer society. He knows the products and brand names, stores and restaurants, and even the advertisements in women’s public restrooms. China’s golden demographic of 150 million–430 million (depending on where you set the bar for wealth) expresses individuality with credit cards. Everyone wants a car. People ski, golf, drink brandy, travel abroad, and waste huge amounts of food at fancy banquets. An integrated East Asian youth culture has emerged that encompasses music and clothes from Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, as well as China. In many ways, urban Chinese tastes are becoming like those of Westerners. But Gerth believes the reverse is also beginning to happen. Chinese-designed cars are flooding the lower end of foreign markets. The government has started a program to make China a “branding superpower.” Where all this might lead politically, if anywhere, is not clear. The book is more sharply observed on its first theme -- “as China goes” -- than on its second, how the rising power of the Chinese market will influence the rest of the world.
Zhang focuses on a single consumer item, but it is a big one: housing. A striking feature of the Chinese consumer revolution has been the rise of private, or “commodity,” housing. Twenty years ago, urban Chinese lived in drab apartments supplied virtually for free by their work units. Now the urban middle class considers a private apartment an essential marker of personal worth. Zhang is a native of the city she reports on, Kunming. She unobtrusively observes every stage of the housing process, from the formation of hybrid public-private land-development companies, through the often violent process of land acquisition, to design, construction, marketing, mortgage applications, sales, decoration, and finally, the pride of the new owners. The idea of a private paradise marks a major reversal in Chinese culture. Neighborhoods are stratified, public space is privatized for the benefit of the better off, and upscale housing creates the illusion of living close to nature. Whether the Chinese are becoming harder to control as a result is less certain. The old neighborhood committees have been replaced by builder-run property-management agencies that do much of the same job. And residents often form homeowner associations, which sometimes push back but often cooperate.