For the last few decades the Chinese government has relied greatly on the legitimacy of affluence. That is, it has promoted a vision of a society in which every Chinese person can have an affluent way of life, defined in terms of an ever-higher standard of living, based on increased consumption of material goods. Consumerism as a major source of legitimacy served the Chinese government well, as economic growth was very high: Millions moved from poverty to the middle-class – from outhouses and carrying water from the town’s well to air-conditioned condos in Shanghai. The fact that several hundred million people have not made such a transition did not undermine the consumerist legitimacy, because it was assumed that they soon would follow in the footsteps of those who already had made it.
Very much in line with studies of aspirations that show that the more readily one achieves one’s goals, the more extended one’s expectations – the Chinese public assumes that the exceptional rise of wealth and accompanying consumption will continue. Indeed, during short slumps in the past, Chinese consumers continued to spend unabashedly. Moreover, in recent years, middle-class Chinese started to demand not merely more material goods but also better services, better health care and quality education, and more public goods, such as reduced pollution.
As I see it, the legitimacy of consumerism is self-defeating even if a nation can maintain a high rate of economic growth, because people will expect ever more, and no growth rate could keep up with their explosion of wants. In fact, studies of happiness tend to show that once a relatively low level of consumption has been achieved, additional growth provides little additional contentment. (I summarized and analyzed these studies in Happiness is the Wrong Metric, a book one can download without charge here.)
Consumerist legitimacy is particularly challenged when economic growth slows and the slowdown extends over several years, as is the case in China now, and there is little reason to believe that China can return to a high-growth pathway. The government can paper over the resulting tensions by increasing spending and urging people to buy more; however, these acts have obvious built-in limitations. The government cannot spend endlessly without either increasing taxes (which would curb consumption) or building up a debt that would drain capital from the private markets. And people who save less find their savings emptied all too quickly.
China has a cultural history on which it can draw to form a new ethos; however, to simply argue that it should return to rely on traditional values will not do. First of all, China has several different historical traditions, including Confucianism, Daoism, and Mohism, each of which is open to different interpretations. Some of these traditions may well exacerbate the problem rather than alleviate it. For instance, a renewed stress on mianzi (face) is quite compatible with conspicuous consumption and the luxury-good frenzy. Similarly, the call to integrate Chinese values with Western consumption has led many Chinese not to buy fewer luxury goods, but to purchase more of those that are locally produced and that have Chinese character attached to them. The anti-corruption drive, initiated by President Xi Jinping in 2012, has a beneficial side effect, as party officials scaled back their consumption, which led some others to cut back on their displays of wealth. However, clearly an anti-corruption drive cannot suffice to make an ethos.
Most promising is the revival of interest in Confucianism. Confucianism can be interpreted, like all belief systems, in a variety of ways. Max Weber famously compared it to the Protestant ethic, which in effect defined hard work and material success as critical aspects of morality and spirituality. In contrast, others see Confucianism as favoring modesty, interpersonal relations, self-effacement, and “being rather than doing.” Out of such values, China may weave a modern communitarian ethos that does not call for abstinence, for a life of sacks and ashes but, rather, for one that calls for capping material consumption by stressing the need to balance the pursuit of material goods with that of interpersonal and communal ones.
China may also find that it can draw on the literati period, in which high value was accorded to learning (including philosophy, poetry, and calligraphy). A commitment to lifelong learning would suit well the age of artificial intelligence and a world that is changing ever-more rapidly.
There is a strong temptation to ramp up nationalism as a source of legitimacy. Nationalism can be patriotic, limited to love of country, but it also can be captured by aggressive urges. Hence, it is particularly important to develop one form or another of a communitarian ethos, marrying select traditional Chinese values with self-restraining consumption, all ideals which are inherently peaceful. Because these values favor acts that are leave a small footprint, acts that entail little outlays of capital and labor, they also contribute to climate control and environmental accommodations, important to China and to the rest of the world.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. Click here to watch a recent, four-minute video of “Political and Social Life after Trump, a new book.” His latest book, Reclaiming Patriotism, was published by University of Virginia Press in 2019 and is available for download without a charge.