From the advent of Chinese rap to the new currency of status, we explore China’s rapidly changing cultural scene. Follow our guide to Inside China, as we map out five shifts essential to brand planning, and comms and service development
20 December, 2019
For most international brands and businesses, China is an essential strategic pillar. But many of the characteristics associated with China feel contradictory and in a constant state of flux. Is the country rising or economically stagnating? Cutting edge or catching up? Capitalist or communist?
In most instances, it’s all of them. It’s a country that has undergone enormous and fundamental change at high speed; tensions and growing pains are to be expected. Increased access to global influences creates new behaviours, and the recalibration of existing social structures and fundamental values comes later. When it happens at speed, that lag creates a bumpy ride. Think less fast-paced evolution and more breakneck reinvention.
In this series, we’ll be taking you through five of the biggest cultural shifts and tension points in China today. From the advent of Chinese rap to the new currency of status, here’s the why, how, and so-what of China’s rapidly changing cultural scene.
Before China opened up to the world in 1978, it was both culturally and economically closed. The focus of life was domestic politics, there was no outside influence and the social imperative was conformity. China’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ in the preceding decade was extreme. It was one of the bloodiest eras in the country’s history, a reassertion of communist values that aimed to stamp out all signs of ‘bourgeois decadence’. Schools, universities, churches and shops were closed – but in reality, this severity just laid the foundation for an enthusiastic reception of capitalism in the 1980s.
“At no time and in no circumstances should a communist place his personal interests first; he should subordinate to the interests of the nation and the masses.”– Chairman Mao Zedong, the ‘founding father of Modern China’ (1949-54)
By the early 80s, Western brands had started to filter through, and TV screens brought the outside in. The most impactful early exposure was to American superstars, the NBA and players embodying rebellion, excess and individuality.
It’s not hard to imagine the impact of this sudden influx of cultural touchpoints. After the strictures and sacrifice of the individual during the Cultural Revolution, this period both kickstarted the country’s economic growth and its cultural covetousness for global, modern influences.
Fast forward roughly 40 years, and the parents of millennials will have been shaped, either directly or indirectly, through this shift. Unsurprisingly, the generational gap here is huge. China’s Gen Z kids grew up in an economic sweet spot. Products of the country’s one-child policy and its astronomic economic growth in the 1990s and 2000s, these children didn’t have to share while growing up and saw only an ever-rising wealth creation. This generational stroke of luck is a sharp contrast to their Western counterparts, often defined by the 2008 financial crisis and chronic debt.
China’s youth is now living through an age of contradictions. They’ve grown up against a backdrop of prosperity; but the economy is slowing, and the cost of living in Chinese cities is quickly rising. They’re globalised and plugged in, deftly navigating the state firewall to interact with cultures from around the world; but the Party is reasserting communist values and nationalism through universities and schools, and clamping down on the restrictions on foreign influences from hip-hop to gaming.
These tensions are giving rise to new subcultures, movements and opportunities that we’re labelling as five distinct cultural shifts. We’ve highlighted them below and will go into more detail as the weeks go by. First up: our investigation into national pride and what ‘Made In China’ means now.
While we knew that culture would be moving fast in China in 2020, little did we know, when we first published this Inside China work at the tail end of 2019, that such a significant event as the Covid-19 outbreak was looming – and that, while eventually it would evolve into a global crisis, all eyes would at first be on China.
We therefore decided it worth updating each of the five cultural shifts outlined and explored in this report, to share some initial thoughts on how the pandemic – and component parts such as isolation and scarcity of experiences – may accelerate or change the trajectory of each trend.
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Gen Z are balancing global connection with national pride to flip the script on Chinese stereotypes
Gen Z are global citizens, itching to be connected to culture from around the world. Bypassing the Chinese firewall to access international news, ideas and inspiration is a given – and they’re well aware they’re part of the first generation with this kind of access, as well as the wealth to travel and experience the world firsthand.
Many see the Chinese enthusiasm for foreign culture and assume that means they’re ‘Westernising’. But, while China has been busy rising, the West has been in decline – a narrative echoed by the Chinese government and witnessed IRL by the people. The West is a source of content for inspiration and ideas, but not necessarily a model for what things should be. There’s a strong sense that China has surpassed it –politically, economically, and influentially.
They’re voracious consumers of ideas and inspiration from other cultures and contexts, but don’t confuse that with being ‘anti-Chinese’. Without being blind to wider social problems, there’s pride in China’s relative stability, its ability to plan for the long term and the speed of its development. The last couple of years have marked the acceptance of Asian culture and its influence on a global audience through politics, creativity and brands.
The strength of national pride is growing; ‘Made In China’ is now a label of confidence.
Higher Brothers was one of the first Chinese hip-hop bands to evade the government censors and reach global success. Their brand is about reclaiming and repurposing Chinese stereotypes, satirising the misconceptions of Chinese culture as Western knock-offs.
Songs like Made In China are a deliberate play on Chinese stereotypes, Western prejudice, and how they DGAF. Using Western trap beats, and starting off with English lyrics, it’s a stamp of ownership on hip-hop. This attitude of confidence and ‘doing it local’ is at the heart of their massive success at home and abroad.
Higher Brothers’ image is 100 per cent China-first. Their latest album Five Stars refers to the five stars of the Chinese flag, and the song WeChat includes the lyrics ‘There’s no Skype, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, we use WeChat,’ referencing how for every Western platform that feels like a necessity, there’s a Chinese counterpart. The vestiges of isolation are being reframed as independence – it’s all about having pride in distinctly and uniquely Chinese culture, that doesn’t rely on Western outlets.
China is leading the world in the sprint towards cashless consumerism, and, with over 50 per cent of the market in China, Alipay is by far in the lead. From shared bikes and utility bills, to doctor’s appointments and morning coffee deliveries, Alipay – along with similar offerings from WeChat and Tencent – has created a fully-integrated financial ecosystem in China at super speed.
Cash is becoming a relic, and Alipay has distinguished itself as the key to navigating an increasingly cashless society. Being a synonym for the future of digital finance is a pretty big boost to your national reputation.
Just look at Singles’ Day, the annual commercial holiday that celebrates flying solo (and reckless consumerism) in China. This year it saw shoppers spend a mind-blowing $38bn – more than the total revenue of Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined (a comparatively paltry $16.8bn). This year, Alipay opened the holiday globally with the launch of an international e-wallet, allowing tourists to participate and use Alipay without a Chinese bank account. The demand for international access to China’s gated community of mobile payments is intense.
While the concept and execution of online payments were modelled on a Western paradigm, Alipay’s adaptation and remodelling to a Chinese fit has far surpassed its origins. Alipay and other Chinese competitor brands are now directing the development of mobile payments globally, and with them the industries they tap into – which is to say, all of them.
China’s sense of national pride has emerged stronger than ever from Covid-19. The death of Dr Li Wenliang, for example, became a defining moment for Chinese people on social media. At first, there was outrage, but with ‘help’ from the central government this was subsumed into a more positive martyr narrative, casting him as a hero of the common people who put his family first and died for the collective good. During the crisis, Chinese people have also rediscovered their collective power outside of the government, banding together at a local level and finding ways to fend for themselves. Now, Chinese people appear to be prouder than ever of the nation’s handling of the crisis. And as they see news about the outside world (particularly Italy and the US), their sense of ‘us and them’ has only become stronger.
People (and brands) are pushing back against state restrictions – without overtly breaking the rules
There has been a drastic rise in censorship throughout China over the last few years. Most recently the Hong Kong protests of 2019 have triggered a reassertion of political power, with lower tolerance for transgression and higher expectations to adhere to the rules. With the developing social credit system and widespread facial recognition surveillance, access to resources is fast becoming tied to how well you behave as a citizen.
Knowledgeable and empowered, young Chinese are ‘woke’ to the human cost of these developments. At the same time, they’re also trying to maneuver the tensions that exist between their wants and needs, and the expectations of their parents (and wider society). They’re digitally mobile, and exposed to more global influences than ever, but they’re still having to confront the pressure to marry young; get on the corporate ladder; align with gender norms; previously to have only one child and now to have two – the list goes on. The fault lines are clear between the rise of individual freedoms and the drive to satisfy big societal expectations.
Genuine social activism happens only at the very fringes. It’s dangerous to speak out politically, so discontent manifests in small, understated rebellions that don’t flagrantly break convention.
Younger generations are pushing back against the values of old China. They don’t want to be limited to a life of work and conformity like they’ve seen their parents chase, but neither can they overtly rebel against it.
Enter Sang culture – an antidote to the toxic levels of competition that have previously defined their lives. It’s an ironic affectation all about a reduced work ethic, lack of motivation and an apathetic demeanour. Young people in China have grown up on a diet of success-story narratives. They’ve been told that they have it easier and better than any other generation. Yet, at the same time, they’re competing in a more brutal workforce, within an economy that isn’t quite as booming as it was a few years ago, and home ownership (one of the stalwarts of adulthood in China) is becoming increasingly unattainable as prices spike.
Sang culture is their en-masse opt out. It’s an attitude that manifests in subculture outlets, from memes to brand comms to tea stalls. Sung Tea sell products like ‘sitting-around-and-waiting-to-die’ matcha milk tea, or ‘my-ex’s-life-is-better-than-mine’ fruit tea. It’s a gentler marker of annoyance than protest; a way to vocalise the discontent and pressure you’re facing, without being personally responsible for the sentiment.
Even a form of protest as seemingly inane as sardonic tea titles is receiving official pushback. The People’s Daily described Sang culture as ‘spiritual opium’ and encouraged people to ‘smile, get up, be brave, refuse to drink Sung Tea’. Being apathetic can be a radical stance in a society based on collectivism and working towards the common good.
Intense gaming is another way of subtly rebelling against societal expectations. Community gaming in particular offers a quiet and temporary way of opting out of the pressure to succeed in a traditional framework.
In China, gaming has a history of being tightly regulated by the state – from the banning of consoles and halts on production, to the limitations on gaming hours for minors introduced in 2018. It’s seen as the gateway to a kind of lethal myopia. Honour Of Kings is the most notorious game of all, with the Chinese army’s official newspaper twice calling it out for diverting their soldiers’ attention. It’s also the highest grossing mobile game in the world, and more than half of its 200 million registered players are female.
Brands like MAC and the luxury jewellery company Chow Sang Sang are capitalising on this direct line to China’s female gamers. Earlier this year, MAC collaborated with Tencent, the makers of Honour Of Kings, to create a range of lipsticks conveying the identity of each character and the tonality of the game. The result was a highly stylised mash up of a premium, colourful brand with a subculture associated with dark rooms, solitude and obsessive devotion. The collab was a wild success, racking up 14,000 pre-orders and selling out within 24 hours of launch.
Like a Sung Tea cup, the MAC lipsticks are a way of displaying alliance with a movement that’s just pushing the boundaries of approval. It’s a subtle downvote to a larger culture of restriction. On Valentine’s Day, Chow Sang Sang also partnered with Tencent to create a line of Honour Of Kings inspired jewellery. As restrictions increase on Chinese gamers – but the numbers of female gamers grow – there’s potential for brands to provide the bridge between online and offline spaces, as they compete to stand their ground (quietly).
The lockdown hit at the time of the Chinese New Year, with young people having returned to their hometowns to be with their families, and leaving their lives of relative autonomy behind. But they quickly found themselves stuck indoors with their parents and, as a result, for many the experience of the lockdown was of a loss of freedom and of stifling family atmospheres. In a culture where boomerang kids are seen as failures and ideas around filial piety (taking care of one’s parents) put great pressure on young people, many felt infantilised and missed their previous lives. Now that the lockdown is lifting, there’s a new appreciation for the freedoms they have. Challenging deep-set cultural ideas around filial piety through smaller, quiet rebellions have taken on an even greater importance for young Chinese people.
The clash between standing out and fitting in, as brands help consumers create a sense of self
One of the first generations with the freedom (socially and financially) to develop a sense of self, young Chinese are relishing the opportunity to create and experiment with new, interesting identities.
Comparing the restrictions of cultural influence pre-1980 to today’s digital world is like going from famine to feast. Chinese youth today are plugged into ideas and influences from across the world. Of course, that’s pretty generic to any digi-native Gen Zer, but here the thirst for stimulus is on another level.
Individuality is the apex of a modern identity, and it’s not something that’s taken on lightly. Social squeamishness about standing out, and the internalised tension of going against parental expectations aside – crafting an identity is a big undertaking. People invest time, money and energy into curating a sense of self.
While the ability to critically assess isn’t encouraged within the Chinese education system, that is exactly what unfettered access to global ideas has given young people. If the norm was previously about conformity and stability, today value comes in being as individual and as different as you can be. Standing out and representing something unique is proof that you’re globalised, interesting and modern. And the stakes are seriously high.
In North America and Europe, streetwear has historically signalled allegiance to a certain tribe, lifestyle or set of values. The appetite for global influences in China, along with the rapid adoption and retirement of trends, means streetwear is appropriated for a different function. It’s about the look, not about the associated ideologies. Imported streetwear is visual first; cultural significance comes later, if at all.
The popularity of reality TV shows like The Rap Of China and Dunk Of China, released in 2017, along with conventions like Sneaker Con and Yo’Hood, are pushing streetwear visuals on a performative scale. But the tides are turning towards interest and investment in domestic Chinese streetwear, rather than global brands (see Shift One above).
Domestic brands (aka Guochao Pinpai or 国潮品牌) use streetwear to play with established codes of gender, luxury and status, with gender-neutralising silhouettes and mixing of high-low fashion cues. Brand values and comms centre on individualism and finding your passion, like Roaringwild’s 2019 collection, Rule Breaker. Up against such a strong collectivist heritage, Chinese streetwear isn’t about broadcasting membership of a specific tribe – it’s about distinguishing yourself from the dominant collective set; proving an inimitable uniqueness that sets you apart.
As young Chinese experiment with the boundaries of conformity, streetwear brands are providing the raw materials for signalling a purposeful and consciously created identity.
For global brands, the challenge with individualism lies in striking a balance between maintaining a coherent brand identity, and facilitating their audiences’ search for distinctive expression.
Retail experiences in China are on another level and, since its launch last year, Nike’s flagship House Of Innovation in Shanghai has upped the game even further. It’s a multi-storey megastore, with a ‘Centre Court’ hosting training sessions, installations and workshops. It’s curated, but sensorially extreme, with clashing colours, styles and extreme looks. The innovation process is front and centre; it’s as much a lab for experimentation as it is a store.
The ‘Nike By You’ section offers one-on-one consultations and granular product optimisation. From the colour gradient of laces to mood lighting within fitting rooms, everything in the House Of Innovation is customisable. This focus on hyper-personalisation casts shoppers as collaborators, not just consumers.
The flip side of this push for individual recognition is the craving for community among many of China’s youth. With single-child families, and physical spaces losing ground to digital, there’s a dearth of real life social hubs. Spaces like Nike’s House Of Innovation are filling the gap. Dropping Shanghai-exclusive product lines builds a sense of locality; product customisation offers experimentation and ownership, both without the risks that can come with standing out.
This conflation of megabrand with hyper-personalisation – and global influences with local community-building – taps into both the risks and the rewards that Chinese youth are balancing in the construction of their identities.
During the lockdown, the individual took a backseat in favour of the collective good and showing solidarity towards the Chinese nation. However, Chinese people also had a rare opportunity for self-reflection – asking deep questions about what they do and don’t want, what’s really important to them; and spending more time understanding and building their sense of individuality. Now that lockdown is lifting, some are ‘revenge spending’, but most are making more considered and meaningful purchases that align with their individual needs. As personal freedoms are restored, Chinese people will, we predict, seek to define themselves more distinctively as individuals.
Markers of luxury and status are changing; Chinese consumers are looking for experiences, not just possessions
The Chinese stereotype used to be all about rampant consumerism, conspicuous designer labels and knock-offs; traits of a highly competitive culture, with new access to money and things to spend it on. But the tides are turning against displays of excess and wealth, as younger Chinese consumers see themselves with much more depth and a higher level of discernment.
The stakes have been raised – and the things you do are fast becoming more important than what you have. Arguably it’s still conspicuous in that doing it for the ‘gram (or WeChat Moments/DouYin) is often the motivation, but the markers have evolved. There’s a demand for new, bespoke and limited-edition experiences rather than just a bunch of possessions. Luxury is now seen as something less visually obvious, and status is shifting to something earned, rather than bought. As Chinese youth experiment with identity-making (see Consciously Individual), collecting unique experiences is a way of forming a public identity that can’t just be bought or easily replicated.
The idea of being ‘beyond the material’ can sound very much like being anti-brand. But it’s not that Chinese audiences are shunning material buying altogether, they just have higher expectations. Consumer-brand relationships are now about holistic experiences, not just the latest product list. Companies like Alibaba and Tencent have built up consumer ecosystems in which every aspect of a consumer’s life is integrated, compared to the more linear systems in the West. The bar is set higher for brands to step it up and offer immersive interactions that also translate into the new currency of status and exclusivity.
Since the government relaxed their travel policy in the late 1970s, China has become the world’s largest outbound tourism market. But as international travel becomes ever more accessible, it loses its coveted status. There’s a growing distaste for prescriptive package holidays; if everyone you know has had the same experience as you, the shine weakens.
Chinese travellers are searching for bespoke cultural exchanges and things that you won’t find in guidebooks (and don’t conjure up images of tour buses or red-flagged guides leading a group of 50). Travel is a way of getting to experiences that have social capital through their rarity; if done right, it’s a way of proving that you’re bold, cultured and worldly. Though still performative at its root, the demand is for authenticity.
54Traveler is a Shanghai based tour company that reconstructs group travel. They design culturally immersive tours for people aged 16-45; from Berber homestays in Morocco, to a private lecture by a Dunhuang Academy professor. It’s a hybrid of off-the-beaten-track style travel with careful curation and luxury add-ons.
With 30,000 customers in 2018, 54Traveler’s success illustrates the demand for tangible, immaterial commodities as symbols of status. Buying products abroad is still a draw, but it’s a way to fuel the talkability of the experience as a whole, rather than for ownership of a certain item. As experiences overtake materialism as the new ‘must haves’, curated travel is fast becoming a solid marker of social status.
Shopping malls are an odd place to look for evidence that Chinese consumers are over material status. But, with the proliferation of high-concept ‘art malls’ (centres that feature concept stores and regular installations), they’re the perfect demonstration of the paradox of dwindling IRL purchase figures and the continued growth of physical stores.
As more and more art malls pop up over the country, bricks and mortar stores are expected to offer even more enrichment and unique (though still social media-ready) brand experiences. In a typical shopping centre, each store functions as a huge, immersive shop window – like a theme park with a retail origin story. Muji’s stores are designed to feel like a woodland getaway; Gentle Monster, the South Korean eyeglass company, displays a series of artistic installations – but doesn’t actually sell products in-store.
Physical stores serve as a highly stylised and experiential version of the brand, inviting shoppers in and giving them an experience (they can buy online later – or on their phones there and then). They’re used for brand storytelling and to signal cultural enrichment, with the implication that they don’t need to showcase flashy commerciality to be successful. Affluent, urban Chinese audiences (youth and beyond) are buying less mainstream fashion and are searching instead for super exclusive, limited edition installations and pop ups. Things that need to be discovered, and are harder to come by, are felt to represent them in more interesting ways.
During the crisis, China went back to basics. Essential foods and amenities were vital and people even looked for DIY solutions – eg. knitting PPE, home cooking and rediscovering traditional Chinese medicine. But the nation’s e-commerce infrastructure is among the most advanced in the world and, following the shift to a back-to-basics mentality, came a need to feel special and to break the day-to-day mundanity. China’s progressive consumers gained an even greater appreciation for the experiential qualities of products, placing more importance on taste and multi-sensoriality. Now lockdown is lifting there is an even stronger desire for quality products – and as fears of recession take hold, they are placing more value on the experience than simply the price tag.
The revolution in China’s creative output, from TikTok to underground music
China is fast becoming a global creative force. A generation of digital natives – with decades of economic security behind them and a renewed and nuanced sense of national pride – are making the transition from passive consumption to high-volume creative output.
The stereotype attached to Chinese creativity is that it is stultified by rigorous education, designed to stamp out individuality and critical thinking. But this notion is coming up against a new reputation as a technological superpower, and the awareness that 40 years of massive economic growth is slowing down. To retain its lead, the state is looking to foster innovation.
This is not as straightforward as a state-funded creative boost sounds in a Western paradigm, though. State policy is deliberately focused on innovation rather than creativity (which could be a slippery slope to undermining the status quo). This is all happening against the backdrop of increased authoritarianism: Xi Jinping is advocating growth in the arts, but it’s a specific and utilitarian kind of creativity focused on foundational Communist values.
There’s a tension between the sharp increase in authoritarianism and the explosion of new Chinese music, art, fashion and design among younger generations. Young Chinese are experts at the side hustle, inventing new ways to be creative (and still make money). The volume of their buying power, combined with new revenue streams facilitated by Weibo, Taobao and WeChat, means that creative talent is increasingly monetizable. Rejecting the stability vs enjoyment dichotomy that underpinned their parents’ lifestyles, young Chinese are seeing creativity as a fundamental – and viable – part of their lives.
China is the fastest growing music market in the world, and many Chinese artists are achieving rapid global success (see Shift One). But major music platforms like Spotify, YouTube and SoundCloud are officially banned in the country, and only accessible if you know how to jump the ‘Great Firewall Of China.’ The underground music scene is thriving as young Chinese fuse global influences and experiment with self-expression through music, but gaining mainstream traction is nearly impossible without official approval.
Standardisation of the music industry means that subcultures tend to stay solidly underground. With the pipeline to mainstream success so tightly controlled, there’s a bottleneck of creative talent simmering in the underground scene. Increasing restrictions on performance permits lead to a delicate balancing act between promoting talent – and risking being shut down. Ticketing platforms show empty calendars online, as unregistered events are hidden and promoted via word of mouth.
Clubs like Dada (Beijing), ALL (Shanghai) and TAG (Chengdu) curate a powerful music scene, where monthly residencies nurture local talent. The inherent risks mean that underground clubs form tightly bound communities, giving rise to small labels and unusual collaborations. Music subcultures in China don’t come loaded with the same tribalism as they do in the West; when so many different subgenres are forced together by state restrictions, the result is an experimental fusing of influences, mixing traditional and futuristic sounds (hip hop from the West, pop from Korea and traditional Chinese music) and opening up new (albeit under the radar) avenues for creative expression.
TikTok has seen the most global success of any Chinese app. It’s racked up 1.5 billion downloads in 150 markets and packs a cultural capital that’s totally disrupted the US monopoly on social tech and entertainment.
TikTok (or DouYin, as the original China-only version is called) taps into the space between creative curiosity and the after effects of collectivist education models that discourage critical thinking. The pattern of personalised video trends means that users can take an existing format and use it to experiment with self-expression. Response videos and virtual duets give an easy blueprint for collaboration. It’s both encouragingly creative and comfortingly prescriptive; mass social creativity without the associated risks.
The app’s global popularity means it’s a hotbed of constant feedback, stimulation, and potential new audiences. There are pros and cons to this. It can be used as a springboard for creative pursuit; TikTok’s See Music program partners with major labels and streaming platforms. It hosts high profile competitions to scout for talent and dropped an entire album earlier this year.
But its visibility also means it comes under close surveillance and has to comply with state restrictions. TikTok has already banned political advertising, and content relating to controversial issues (the Hong Kong protests or the Uighur crackdown are notoriously absent from the platform). But its users are well-practised in dodging online censorship, and users in both China and beyond find ways of slipping politically charged content under the net. As the app encourages creative content, part of that outside-of-the-box thinking involves outmanoeuvring the platform itself.
One of the first responses in China to the sudden loss of freedom was a boom in creativity. Cocktail making kits, recreating favourite restaurant meals at home, taking up new hobbies (such as knitting, painting and DIY) became popular on Kuaishou and DouYin, and creativity became a means for stability and comfort. Before the lockdown, having a creative passion was a luxury but, in the lockdown, it became more mainstream. Coming out of the crisis, Chinese people have a new realisation for, and confidence in, their creative skills. And while the pressures of daily life may undo some of this, there is a renewed appreciation for experimentation and imagination. We foresee this continuing, but maybe with a little more help from brands.
20 December, 2019