The BBC World Service aired a 20 minute documentary recently called “Selling cheese to the Chinese”. The title makes it sound a bit like a puff piece, and it even starts a bit like one, but it isn’t. Bits of it have been rattling around in my head for the past few days. If you really want see the power if cheese or, more importantly, predict the future of China and the West, you should give this piece a serious listen to the end.
These five things stand out to me:
- Around five minutes in, a woman says “Even though we are in an economic crisis, we see an increase every single of week of Europeans landing here with their suitcases and a dream, and they want to make it.” Has the American dream moved to China already?
- “One seemingly innocuous comment surprises me… ‘Only very old people know about Chinese culture’, says one girl.” China has one of the longest lasting cultures on Earth, but the Communists more or less obliterated it from living memory. So the young now have no grounding in in the old ways. This is good and bad for the West, it seems to me. On the one hand, it means that making cultural in-roads into China will meet much less resistance from the youth of China, particularly the rising middle class. On the other hand, it also may mean that China’s historical insularity, which sometimes worked to its detriment on the world stage (and the West’s benefit), may be over. I suspect that the end result will be a much more intellectually agile China, and that will almost certainly mean a much more dominant China over the next century than I have been expecting.
- Around 15 minutes in: “The rise of McDonald’s in post-reform China was predicated on the demise of nation wide food rationing, but the consumption of cheese and wine will be more than that.” Instead, it will be the emergence of consumer choice driving a market, largely outside of government influence. In short: capitalism. Which means either Communism doesn’t have much longer in China or it will have to get even nastier.
- “People at my age spend all of their salary every month. People from my mom’s generation save as much as they could.” Not sure what to make of that. What do you think?
- “‘We trust foreign companies more than we trust local companies, because we have suffered a lot.’ It was a penny drop moment. Curious Jessie may have experimented with pricey Belgian chocolate, but the only European product this family buy regularly is a breakfast cereal…which they trust to be free from chemical additives.” This is probably a short term advantage for the West, but to compete against it, Chinese products will have to get safer, which will make them more expensive. It will also probably increase the standard of living in China, which will probably increase the cost of labor there. That is probably good for everyone, but will dampen China’s ascent slightly.