Apple has taken China by storm. A Starbucks can be found on practically every major street corner in coastal cities and beyond. From Nike to Buick to Siemens, Chinese consumers actively prefer Western brands over their domestic competitors. The rise of microbloggers, the popularity of rock bands with names like Hutong Fist and Catcher in the Rye, and even the newfound popularity of Christmas all seem to point toward a growing Westernization.

But don’t be deceived by appearances. Consumers in China aren’t becoming “Western.” They are increasingly modern and international, but they remain distinctly Chinese. If I’ve learned anything from my 20 years working as an advertising executive in China, it is that successful Western brands craft their message here to be “global,” not “foreign”—so that they can become vessels of Chinese culture.

Understanding China’s consumer culture is a good starting point for understanding the nation itself, as it races toward superpower status. Though the country’s economy and society are evolving rapidly, the underlying cultural blueprint has remained more or less constant for thousands of years. China is a Confucian society, a quixotic combination of top-down patriarchy and bottom-up social mobility. Citizens are driven by an ever-present conflict between standing out and fitting in, between ambition and regimentation. In Chinese society, individuals have no identity apart from obligations to, and acknowledgment by, others. The clan and nation are the eternal pillars of identity. Western individualism—the idea of defining oneself independent of society—doesn’t exist.

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