e-mail us

Special Report: China

Fast food, Western colas highlight China growth


I was surprised to hear one of our guides call Chairman Mao Zedong a dictator. The communist icon’s portrait still hangs proudly over Tiananmen Square, and his body remains in state at the square’s Mao Mausoleum.

As China has moved away from communism as an economic development strategy, beginning in the late 1970s, it has been forced to rethink its views about Mao, the nationalist who ushered in communism and brought on the Cultural Revolution, which led to the deaths of tens of millions.

“He made some serious mistakes,” one English-speaking Chinese explained. Today the former Chinese leader is revered as a national hero but a failed economist.

Historians may conclude that, in the post-Cold War era, the most important man in China was Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, who took over China in 1979. Deng emphasized that China could learn from capitalism and moved it out of communist ranks, in practice if not in name. His aim was to build a market economy. China is still attempting the transition. The question Beijing leaders now face is can they allow a free market while maintaining full control of the political process.

By 1992 China’s economy was growing at 13 percent annually, faster than any other economy in the world. By 1997, it had fallen to a 9 percent growth rate. Much of the boom has been financed by foreign investment, three-quarters of it by Chinese living abroad.

Ironically, for the moment China appears to be modeling itself after its bitter enemy, Taiwan, which, in recent decades, developed economically while repressing its people.

One young Chinese entrepreneur, defending China’s dismal human rights record, said his nation was on a course to greater freedom and that political freedom would advance in the wake of economic freedom. But he did not want it too fast, he said. The move to a free market and political pluralism in Russia, he noted, was too fast. “We don’t want to make the same mistakes the Russians did,” he said.

The move toward a market economy has raised living standards in China, most particularly in the cities. In the countryside much poverty remains. There has been great disruption and growing unemployment as state-owned farms have closed.

Some women have complained in the wake of these changes. Socialism pushed the equality of women and men as a guiding principle, if not the actual norm. But Chinese capitalism has apparently moved China into greater acceptance of a male-dominated capitalist network.

An article that appeared in a November 1998 issue of Shanghai Today, an English language magazine, focused on sexism in the marketplace. Written by a Chinese woman, the article lamented companies that require photographs from perspective employers. She wrote the practice works against “less attractive women.”

Chinese everywhere say they support the modernization of China. This often seems to translate into the “Westernization” of the nation. Signs of the West are everywhere. English has become the second language, a must for anyone wishing to advance in society.

In every city we traveled, we ran into fast food franchises. Colonel Sander’s Kentucky Fried Chicken, now simply KFC, was the most prominent. KFC was among the first U.S. fast-food chains to enter China, opening up its first franchise in 1987. It now boasts more than 280 locations in 65 cities across China, according to official government figures. KFC, the government states with a kind of Chamber of Commerce enthusiasm, attracts 450,000 “chicken-chomping customers” each day.

I visited a KFC one evening in Hangchow to sample the local chicken. The restaurant was clean and spacious, a two-story eatery. Outside, a white life-size plastic Colonel Sanders stood by the entrance. This colonel could not have been more than 5 feet, 2 inches, appreciative of the shorter stature of the young Chinese the figure was meant to attract.

McDonald’s appears to be the fastest growing foreign franchise, with 34 restaurants in Beijing alone. It claims it will have no fewer than 100 Big-Mac-serving restaurants throughout Beijing by the year 2000.

Meanwhile, Pepsi Cola and Coca Cola are dueling, both eager to capture the seemingly insatiable Chinese market for things foreign. Coke already controls 58 percent of the carbonated beverages market and Pepsi 21 percent, according to government figures.

The battle for the market took a new step last year when Drink Group, the world’s seventh largest drink producer, launched Future Cola to compete with Coke. In retaliation, Coca-cola introduced a series of ready-to-drink tea products, targeting young Chinese customers.

Foreign designer labels are sought after, particularly by younger Chinese. It is quite common to see Chinese wearing shirts, jackets, caps and other apparel sporting brand names. Nike is the favorite, several young Chinese told me. Michael Jordan decorates billboards in Beijing just as he does in New York or Los Angeles. Reebok apparently is the second-most-popular athletic brand name, having replaced Puma and Adidas in popularity among young Chinese.

The favorite high fashion label is Pierre Cardin, but some more sophisticated Chinese prefer Versache, our guide said.

National Catholic Reporter, January 29, 1999