SHANTOU, China — Here’s the great thing about being the United States, the world’s largest market: you still get to determine what’s cool, what catches your eye on your computer or TV screen, and what’s for sale at Wal-Mart.
That's how it looks from here, anyway, if you are 15-to-30 years old and living in China.
Yes, Wal-Mart in Shanghai or Shantou, Guangzhou or Zhengzhou, where the clothes are Made In China, but Look Like America, from the knocked-off brand names to the knocked out American lingo splattered across hoodies and t-shirts: “Bodacious,” “Run for the Hills,” “Property of the University of Akron Athletics Department,” “Property of the Next Good-Looking Guy.”
When Chinese shoppers head for Wal-Mart, they are heading for the fashion store, the quality goods place. They might pay a little more than at the stall down the street, but they can be confident they will be as well-dressed as, well, an American.
It’s a feeling younger Chinese seem to like a lot. It’s why they’ll pay a few yuan more than they would for a meal in a local restaurant to dine at “The Colonel’s” or McDonald's or go for pizza at “The Hut.” Fast food is cheap food in America. In China fast food costs more because it is American. China loves American brands, from Buick to Batman to the NBA.
In fact, China loves the assurances of a branded universe the way Americans did 50 years ago. The response has been the same as it was when America emerged in the 1950s to a generation of progress and prosperity. The Chinese have been freed to celebrate and validate success through personal possessions.
In the United States of the late 1940s and 1950s, people once-shackled by Depression-era want and caution and wartime uncertainty and sacrifice were liberated as consumers. They bought, for one, huge numbers of new homes. So, too, in China. These exuberant Asian Levittowns are dense and vertical rather than green-patch horizontal, but since the late 1990s apartments have been selling like noodle soup at noontime. And so have home furnishings, home appliances and all the accoutrements for the lifestyles that go with them.
To most Chinese the idea of such a life, freely expressed, freely financed by your own best efforts, is American. And so is the inspiration behind almost every particular component of this lifestyle. They buy American and so do their kids.
The Boom Years generation of China has struck a deal with their government: “We the people get richer and gain new levels of personal choice, but politics and power we leave to you.” A big part of the government’s share has been improving public education. This was also a characteristic of post-World War II America, when more people started to spend more profitable time gaining knowledge at public expense.
Post-War Americans, rife with child-rearing after putting it off through years of hard times or long separations, demanded it for their booming babies. In one-child China, families concentrate their hopes one kid at a time, and have demanded the government reinvest its boom time gains in better schools.
As a result, daring central government choices are reshaping Chinese public education, from a commitment to teaching English as a second language to putting computers in all schools. This has guaranteed to this generation of Chinese students — just what the Baby-boom generation got when they entered classrooms in the late 1950s — an open, virtually borderless world, dominated by American ideas. In the 1950s, the theatre of globalism was the United Nations, today it is the Internet.
A generation of Americans dreamed about extending American rights and opportunities to the world through the UN. This generation of Chinese is absorbing unbounded American innovation and expression by grazing the Internet. Facebook and YouTube today enhance America’s reputation as did UNICEF once did.
And just as the children of the post-war boom, the university students of the 1960s and 70s rebelled against perceived offenses against justice or opportunity, like war or discrimination by race or gender. Today’s Chinese students routinely denounce the corrupted and peremptory powers of their government.
The government is clearly worried. Thus, President Hu Jintao recently promised a job for every college graduate. But for today’s Chinese students, pocketbook issues aren't the only concern.
Recently, tragedy struck Shantou University. Two students suddenly died, one a suicide. The deaths were apparently unrelated, but rumors swept the campus.
“I ran to my computer to get the facts,” a student told me. "I went to the BBS [the campus bulletin board]. No information. This is a common phenomenon in China. They never release bad news unless it can’t be hidden any more.”
“How are ordinary people to get real information?” he asked.
He pleaded with me out of genuine puzzlement and despair, but also because he thought, as an American, I might know the answer.
Dave Marash spent 16 years as chief international correspondent for ABC News Nightline with Ted Koppel, two years anchoring at Al Jazeera English, and most recently, four months teaching journalism at Shantou University in the People's Republic of China.