Monday, February 21, 2011

What's to see in China? ...Did you say "IKEA?"

Yeah, I know. China, land of thousands of years of history, land of remarkable beauty, numerous world-class museums...and where did we go on Saturday?  To IKEA, like many thousands of Chinese, it turns out.  I admit that I've been to IKEA in the US several times, and I've seen IKEA in Russia, Hungary, and other places, but I was curious about how the IKEA phenomenon played out in today's China.  After all, when I first saw China in 1982, there were way more bicycles than cars, and the consequences of the Cultural Revolution were still palpable everywhere.  But today's China is a different place, especially for people of a certain age, education, and, most importantly, income, and nowhere better illustrates this reality than IKEA.  Here in Nanjing, as with IKEA everywhere, I guess, the store is situated out some distance, bumping up now against other big box stores.  And, as in Chicago's IKEA, for instance, there is a huge parking lot and lots of cars.  And, as in all IKEA stores, one can find countless attractive and (usually) low-priced items of consumption; indeed, surveying the items for sale, it would be hard to notice any difference from any IKEA store—every item labeled in Swedish, as elsewhere, but here also labeled in Chinese.

All IKEA stores attract crowds, but until I visited the Nanjing IKEA I really had no appreciation for the meaning of "crowd."  The store was crammed with people, for the most part young, well-dressed couples, often with a child (sometimes even two) in tow. As in all IKEA stores, they were toting those ample yellow bags suitable for filling with lots of stuff; more ambitious buyers had shopping carts they were filling, and filling their bags and carts they certainly were! As their buying habits suggested and as their clothing generally confirmed, these were the young Chinese who were benefiting from the changes of the last two decades. Unlike their un- or under-employed peers, these people have a stake in the system.

I have thought about all this quite a bit of late, especially in light of the instability now apparent elsewhere in the world over the last few weeks. Although a recent piece in the New York Times indicated an awareness in China of a potential carry-over from the turbulence evident throughout the Middle East,  it is hard to visualize this threat among the throngs of young Chinese we saw at IKEA; for them things here seem to be just fine. Of course, it is impossible to know how broadly this satisfaction extends, and far from all young Chinese can afford to shop at IKEA (or buy the car to get them there).  But for a generation born not only after the Cultural Revolution but even after Tienamen, it may well be stuff that determines the future of China.

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