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China’s Millennials: Consumer Superpower

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Trans-Pacific View

China’s Millennials: Consumer Superpower

Insights from Helen Wang.

China’s Millennials: Consumer Superpower
Credit: Flickr/ Tim Stahmer

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Helen Wang – Silicon Valley entrepreneur and author of The Chinese Dream: The Rise of the World’s Largest Middle Class and What It Means for You – is the 92nd in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Explain the rise of China’s millennials as consumer superpower.

China’s millennials are a new breed of consumers who will shape the future of commerce. Numbering more than 400 million, they have indeed become a consumer superpower.

One of the most important characteristics of Chinese millennials is that they are the only-child generation, which sets them apart from other millennials.

Starting from 1979, China implemented the one-child policy in an effort to control its population growth. The policy lasted for almost 40 years and was only ended recently. During this period, each family in urban China was allowed to have only one child.

Chinese millennials, aged 19 to 35, were all born during the one-child policy period. These “little emperors” and “little empresses,” as they are often being called, were at the center of their universe when they grew up. They are a privileged generation. They grew up during China’s economic reforms and opening, and benefited significantly from the increasing prosperity. Financially, they are much better off than older generations. When it comes to consumption, they are more than willing to spend.

They are an entitled generation. As only children in their families, their parents and grandparents want to give them the best of everything, and are eager to satisfy their every wish. This kind of upbringing makes them feel entitled. As consumers, they are extremely demanding. They want good products and services, and they want them fast.

What is the e-consumption correlation between China’s emerging middle class and millennials?

Among the Chinese middle class, millennials are the second generation of consumers. They have gone beyond ostentatious consumption. They are consuming for their own personal enjoyment. In a way, they are real consumers.

They grew up with the internet and social media. But because they were only children and didn’t have siblings to play with, they turned to the internet as a medium for socializing and entertainment.

That’s why they are extremely active on social media, much more so than their Western counterparts. They are savvy shoppers with e-commerce and mobile phones. At last year’s Singles Day shopping festival — the largest shopping day hosted by Alibaba — 82 percent of Chinese shoppers shopped on their mobile phones, compared to 36 percent of Americans who did so on Black Friday.

Because they grew up socializing and having fun online, shopping to them is not just shopping. It’s socializing and entertainment all merged together. They are driving China’s e-commerce toward a futuristic orientation with mobile commerce, social commerce, and entertainmerce.

In which sectors will China’s millennials have purchasing power impact?

Chinese millennials have purchasing power impact in all consumer product sectors, including beauty, fashion, and luxury goods. They want to enjoy life. They are big on travel. They want to see the world with a focus on new and unique experiences.

Chinese millennials also have impact on homemaking, home interior, kitchenwares, and other lifestyle sectors. They admire the Western lifestyle and believe it’s more sophisticated and tasteful. They will invest heavily in children’s education, and financial services such as personal wealth management.

How might China’s millennials influence U.S.-China relations for better or worse?

China’s millennials grew up watching a lot of American soap operas, reality TV shows, and Hollywood movies; they are familiar with American pop culture. In general, they like the openness and democracy in the U.S. But many also think Western-style democracy may not work in China.

Many Chinese millennials dream of going to the U.S. to study. They consider the ability to study in American universities as one of their highest achievements, which in turn will provide them better employment opportunities.

However, Chinese millennials are also nationalistic. They are proud of what their country has achieved in the past decades. They tend to take any criticism of China or its government personally. The Chinese culture is very collective. In such a culture, the government implicitly represents the people. So, when the government is criticized, they believe they as a people are criticized.

China’s millennials can be a positive force for U.S.-China relations, as they are more open-minded and individualistic than older generations. The key is to empower them and have more people-to-people exchanges.

What sources shape the worldview and perceptions of China’s millennials?

For Chinese millennials, news stories on the internet and social media are an important source of information. The government-controlled propaganda has some effect on millennials, causing some of them to be brainwashed and unaware of certain history events. However, many of them, especially intellectuals, do not really believe the central government’s propaganda, and many of them use VPNs to get pass China’s Great Firewall to find out the truths.

Confucian tradition, although not explicitly taught in school, is deeply rooted in the culture. China’s millennials are under pressure from family and society to do well in academia and have financial success. They are also expected to show filial piety to their parents.