Materialistic Chinese

A study by French market research firm Ipsos recently suggested that Chinese consumers are the most materialistic across the 20 countries the survey covered.

Percentage who agree with the statement “I measure my success by the things I own.” (Source : Ipsos)

As many of you know, I am a market researcher by profession so I think it’s important to point out some potential flaws with the study. Firstly it’s very hard to compare responses across different cultures – in Britain, most people would hesitate to admit that possessions were important in the same way they’d worry about admitting they didn’t like certain races of people. In China, both examples would be less of an issue – certainly admitting you hate Japanese people is to be encouraged!

And then of course you have bias simply by doing this type of survey online – you’re automatically excluding people who don’t have internet access which tends to include those on low incomes.

Nevertheless, I personally have been irritated by a lot of nouveau riche Chinese (some known to me, some not) who seem to feel a strong need to flaunt their wealth as much as possible at every opportunity.

My mother has recently met a wealthy couple from China and they are a good example – the woman enjoys making sure everyone knows how much each of her Hermes handbags cost (she has identical bags in a variety of colours). And I have numerous friends who spend most of each day posting photos of themselves shopping at Cartier and Tiffany and dining at fine dining establishments, not as most people might do as an occasional treat, but as a daily routine.

And then of course there are the Chinese tourists who work themselves up in to a frenzy when they travel to places like Europe and north America to shop for luxury brands, grabbing everything in sight as though they were giving them away for free!

So, are Chinese really more materialistic than everyone else, or are the nouveau riche simply behaving as nouveau riche as someone wrote in the comments section of the article?

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9 Responses to Materialistic Chinese

  1. shallowguy says:

    Hey – interesting question. I tend to agree with you nouveau riche are nouveau riche anywhere. And in China by definition, there is no real old money as we would know it.

    However, showy materialism is exacerbated in the Chinese context: 1) this country is only one generation away from shortages, stamps for basic necessities, etc. ; 2) the wechat explosion – where comparisons with one neighbours (friends) drives the behaviour to an even stronger extent and 3) as Westerners it is easy to be inundated by it because of the sheer numbers at play.

    Anyway, my feeling is that Asia and not just China is more materialistic and the developing nations especially so. I was talking about this with a friend’s wife (Indonesian) who had just relocated from Jakarta to small town England. Vietnam is also witnessing similar conspicuous consumption. Is it wrong? Is it right? Who cares as long as it is not annoying but it can be as comprehension or appreciation can be lacking.

    Hell, I know I am even guilty – back home I wore no-name black t-shirts but here I can afford a Nike black T and have an Apple phone so as not to be a social outcast (dig made at the blogger here!).

    Anyway, the luxury brands should be happy that someone is buying their stuff in large quantities.

  2. WoAi says:

    @Shallow Guy – Wow, thanks, you’ve added quite a lot of interesting points to the discussion. As you say, Nouveau riche are the same everywhere – you only have to look at lottery winners in the west to see how money affects previously impoverished people.

    I like the social networking point – everyone has an audience and an image to project, more so than before. This applies to Facebook in the west as much as WeChat and other platforms in China. It’s clear many of these people feel the need to convince everyone how “successful” they are and this is usually expressed by the amount luxury brand products they can amass.

    And yes, westerners often make the mistake of equating absolute numbers (very high) with percentages of the general population (very low). This doesn’t just apply to rich people displaying their wealth but all the other generalisations people make about Chinese people.

    As for the dig at me, I would truly not think anything less of you if you used a cheap Chinese phone, so don’t feel the need to keep up with me! I have thought about my own appetite for expensive brands and I like to think it’s not about displaying my wealth but about liking good quality products and I think that’s the key difference. I hope one day to own a Porsche 911, but it’s because I love driving rather than wanting acknowledgement of my success. At least, I think that’s what it is. Otherwise I’d go for a Ferrari or a Bugatti Veyron!

    Anyway, according to my Rolex Submariner, it’s time to hit the Boxing Day sales!

  3. China Doll says:

    There is no doubt that Chinese are among the most materialistic peoples in the world. In fact I think they are second to no one in this regard. They are not allowed to pursue anything else. Their only freedom lies in the pursuit of wealth. They are not encouraged to pursue anything else. Why wouldn’t they be materialistic? It’s okay to cheat, to lie, to do just about anything to get ahead of others.

    Yes today’s Chinese are the most materialistic people in the world

  4. T. says:

    @China Doll – There is no doubt? I have some doubt. A little doubt. (Especially looking at the survey results – there’s no way Japan is that low – they’ve driven the luxury market for the last 30 years).

  5. WoAi says:

    @China Doll – It’s worth reading the other comments above yours that I think provide some great insights as well as my own comments about the flaws in the survey methodology. I don’t think there’s any conclusive proof that support the proposition that Chinese are more materialistic than anyone else. My view is you are speaking only of a very small minority of Chinese not ALL Chinese. It’s just that China’s population is so large that even 1% of the population is still 13 million people. It’s a trap a lot of people fall in to when making observations about Chinese.

  6. Bittermelon says:

    I hope one day to own a Porsche 911,


    Why didn’t you say so? I am sure your many web fans were wrecking their brains trying to figure out what to give to the man with everything for Christmas.

    On a related note. I bought a Rolax for $50 last year. It’s not working anymore. Can you tell me where I can get it serviced in Shanghai?

  7. Stimpy says:

    One thing that seems clear to me is that with all the upheaval that China has experienced in the last 70 or so years it is very important for people show that they are ‘climbing the ladder’. Linked to that, it is only natural for people to make their status clear to others by showing off their material wealth.

    Of course, this can have consequences on the larger part of the population, leading to people with lesser wealth trying to catch up with the Jones’ by buying things that are considered status symbols but in reality have little or no value than just that- a marker on how far you have developed as a family/person.

    When you see people here that earn around 5,000 RMB a month with the latest iphone and/or ipad, you have to wonder where their priorities lie. That is until you realise that they need to buy these things to show that they are upwardly mobile and their status allows for them to make such purchases.

    There is a temptation for westerners to look down at these displays of wealth, and I personally find them extremely tacky, but this is a country where status and face are almost everything- they dictate the kind of job you work in, the kind of schools your children go to, what types of circles you move in. For better or for worse these displays are here to stay.

    There are, of course, those that are simply incredibly vain and self-centered who will always want to show off to others, but those types of people exist in every walks of life.

  8. China Doll says:


    Every mainland Chinese that I have interacted with puts material success on the top of the priority list. I haven’t met one exception.

    Pursuing material success isn’t just a phenomenon – it’s a social request in China. The society does not encourage people to pursue anything else.

    I am sure there are exceptions. But as you pointed out, there are so many Chinese people on this planet; a small fraction of exception makes an impressive display of “nonconformance”.

    And again, I am not saying Chinese have always been like this. However at this point in history they can’t help but pursue one thing and one thing only.

  9. T. says:

    Well much fewer than 100% of the Mainland Chinese whom I interact with on an everyday basis put material success at the top of their importance index. I’d probably rate it a big whopping zero percent, in fact. Most people, their families, their job, being able to afford housing and occasionally go on a vacation represent the most important things to them, not luxury goods.

    But then again, I’ve only lived here seven years so I wouldn’t be as arrogant to say I know what drives the Chinese mind.

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