What do middle class Chinese want?

This past weekend I had the chance to go to a nearby resort with my co-worker’s family. It was a great opportunity to see how China’s newly wealthy spend their money, and I was reminded of what priorities they have when it comes time for vacation.


To me, the urge to get the most use of the money spent, was surprising. For instance, we had many places that we wanted to visit after we checked out, but our friends insisted on waiting until noon to leave the hotel. When noon did finally roll around, there was a giant mob of people checking out as well. It seemed as if everyone had whiled away their morning in an effort to get their full allotment of hotel room time.

We saw this in the hot springs themselves as well. The resort boasted having over 100 kinds of water infused with different herbs. This meant that roughly every 5-10 minutes we would switch which pool we were soaking in. No one seemed to be aware of what the benefits of each herb were exactly, but it seemed as if everyone was willing to brave the below freezing temperatures to run from one tub to the next, if we didn’t try every pool, it would have been a waste.

As Dan, from China Law Blog, mentioned in a recent post, Chinese consumers seem to be willing to pay far more for a product than it might actually be worth, if it looks like a luxury good. However, there have also been several reports, that indicate that these same consumers are later disappointed by the products they bought at inflated prices (which is unsurprising). As much as China’s nouveau riche seem to only be concerned with foreign brands, value is becoming a far more important quality.


From what I saw this weekend, “western” designs based off of ideas of what Europe or the US might look like are now competing more with “foreign” designs in general. There were Thai inspired lobbies, coffee from Brazil and Jamaica, and spas inspired by Turkish baths. Chinese consumers have started to recognize the prestige of global products, not just those that come from developed countries.

However, there is still little attention paid to the actual details, and consumers are still unsure of what is or isn’t a good deal. The coffee cost $5 a cup and was made from instant crystals. The Turkish bath included fish that nibbled at your dead skin, a practice that started in Japan, but no sweat rooms or vigorous scrubbing. The same goes for many other “foreign” goods in China, even though value is a priority, it is still very hard for China’s consumers to gauge international products for which they have no previous experience.

The thing to remember though, is that Chinese consumers are quickly learning how to distinguish between these goods. So building a company off of goods that simply look good, might not be a workable long term plan. It is important to remember that Chinese consumers are looking to foreign products for exotic styles and high quality.

Social Space

Finally, I found it a little funny, that there seemed to be very few couples alone at the hot springs. There were groups of couples, or groups of same sex friends, but I don’t know if I saw more than 1 or 2 couples on a romantic get-away out of the hundreds of people.

In many Chinese hotels, especially near tourist sites, you’ll find that the public spaces are used much more frequently compared to what you would see in the US. If there isn’t a lobby where they can play cards, than they will play in their rooms with the doors propped open. Social spaces are a must when it comes to Chinese tourists, who more often than not are travelling with a group of friends, rather than as a family or couple.

Nowhere was this more apparent than on the cruise I took down the Yangtze River last year. The company had carefully segregated the passengers into Chinese and non-Chinese, which at first left a few of the foreigners a little frustrated. By the second day though, it was clear why they had done it. The foreign quarters were almost completely silent, every door was closed, and very few people were traveling in more than pairs.

On the Chinese side of the boat, doors where always open and the sound of mahjong tiles seemed omnipresent. Children literally ran up and down the hall in some kind of marathon, while their parents shouted at them to come to dinner. While this was driving a few of the foreigners crazy, even though they were just passing through it, the Chinese passengers viewed it as a normal use of the social space.

29 responses to “What do middle class Chinese want?”

  1. This is an excellent post and reminded me of the time back in 2008 when I was helping a sociologist in Hong Kong to edit her Ph.D. thesis on the ‘new middle class’ of China. What I told the sociologist was roughly what you wrote here, but, frustratingly to me as editor, the sociologist preferred to take the orthodox sociology route to interpreting the new Chinese middle class, thereby almost ‘totalling’ her thesis.

  2. MAC says:

    The hotel thing just seems ridiculous. Presumably, even if you were staying to take full advantage of things like pools and fitness rooms, you would still be doing things that you could probably do one way or another back home, while in the meantime you’re whiling away time that could be spent doing what you actually took the trip for. I mean, are the hotel digs so much better than your home that you want to enjoy 2-4 extra hours there instead of going out and doing stuff?

  3. Chuck says:

    If you view staying at a hotel as the purchase of a luxury item in and of itself, it makes sense. However, if the hotel is viewed from a more western utilitarian perspective, then the idea that one would stay longer seems ridiculous. It’s a different perspective on what the hotel stay actually is, and perhaps even a different understanding of vacation as a whole.

  4. xl says:

    About 6 years ago, I went to Hainan with some Chinese family members as part of a tour group, and it was literally the vacation from Hell. First of all, it was a “budget” tour that cost around $450USD for round trip air fare, 5 nights accommodation, and all 3 meals for each person. We only had hot water on one of the nights and some of the rooms had concrete floors. I was expecting to just lounge around the beach…but oh no. We were squeezed into a mini-van and driven all around the island with a manic itinerary to see everything possible: wake up call at 7am – 2hrs drive – stop for 1hr at scenic beach/ fight crowds to take photos as evidence of having been at said beach – back in car 3hrs drive – stop for 2.5hrs at monastery + box lunch – and so on. And there were about a hundred other tour groups doing the same thing so that the beach was filled with many groups, following the color-coded flags carried by their tour guide. Even a coconut processing factory and a whole-sale fruit market counted as tourist attractions on the itinerary. I guess my idea of vacation is a time to relax, get pampered, and de-stress from work but for the middle-aged office workers in my group, their daily lives are pretty slow-paced and a “vacation” to them means a trip to collect evidence to show off their wealth. Everyone except me carried giant crates of tropical fruit, fancy seashells, local specialty food-products (as gifts for their coworkers) onto the plane for the return trip.

  5. DocnChaos says:

    I have lived in China for 10 years, almost half of that time in Sanya Hainan.
    Its always better to,,,NOT indulge in the cheap tourist scams in China. Make a go of it alone or with your favorite translator, girlfriend or wife. That way you will not be dissapointed when you have to pay more, but you will get a much better deal especially if you travel mate can negotiate better prices for the two of you.

  6. LaoWhy? says:

    Ah, travel in China…
    The leaving the door open thing gets to me, especially when the inhabitants are smokers, often smoking on a nonsmoking floor.
    In general, if you are looking for a nice quiet getaway, do not go to a resort that caters to Chinese tours, where you will be overwhelmed by buffet gorgers and tour guides with ridiculously loud and distorted microphones/speaker. Do not go to a park (at least the ones in Beijing), where you have Karaoke wars. I have been to many lovely pristine places which were absolutely overwhelmed by mainlander’s noisy and often blatant misbehavior.
    It’s often like being on a field trip with 6 graders. I could deal with the crowds. But it’s their frequent ignoring of signs, littering, children defecating and of course spitting. I recall in the Museum of Japanese Aggression in southwest Beijing, a guy was taking video in a gallery where no photos are allowed. This happens all the time in China but the unique thing was that there was a guard that told this guy 5 times to stop and he kept doing it. The guard was 6 inches from the guy’s ear shouting at him and he still continued filming.
    Of course, I am a foreigner and it is their country. But on the other hand, many mainlanders agree that these miscreants ought to behave and obey the rules. But they just shrug and tolerate it.
    Mei ban fa
    The all time worst was my friend was visitng Xian and was at the Terra Cotta warrior pit gazing down at the amazing sight of hundreds of life sized statues when she heard the sound of someone preparing for to spit. Sure enough the guy horked up a giant sized one over the rail and into the pit and nailed a statue right on the shoulder. Who does that kind of thing?

    • Andrew The says:

      Took my family to a large, famous zoo during Chinese New Year.

      Saw some horrible treatment of animals by mainland visitors: hitting baboons with empty water bottles; tormenting giraffes with leafy branches, only to pull them away at the last moment, laughing. The guards saw all but did and said nothing.

      Still makes me furious, thinking about it.

      • Miguel says:

        Pronouns! What happened to pronouns? Why do so many people write like this now?

      • Andrew The says:

        I can’t speak for others, but I abbreviated my comment due the devotion of the greater portion of my attention to warily watching my 6 month old staggering about. 🙂

        And yes, I just split an infinitive. ;P

      • Andrew, don’t worry about it. It’s just a grammatical false alarm. Fine with the rest of us. Pronouns are sometimes optional in certain cases. If you’re Welsh, even verbs are sometimes optional.

  7. Lorin Yochim says:

    Your descriptions sound about right, Tom, although I wondering if you’re playing a little loose with the terms “newly wealthy,” “middle class,” and “nouveau riche.” Of course it would take an awfully long post to tease out the differences, but such teasing would likely be lost on those intent on commenting about the evils of spitting and baby poop. As to the crux of your article, I think your last sentence captures the point succinctly: “While this was driving a few of the foreigners crazy, even though they were just passing through it, the Chinese passengers viewed it as a normal use of the social space.”

    • Tom says:

      I had a feeling as I typed those phrases that you might have issue with them. Yes, I am probably playing a little loose with them, as I have no real way of gauging how long any of the people at the resort have been wealthy. In my defense, most were between 30-40 years old (by appearance), and the resort would have been far beyond the means of anyone without a decent amount of cash (as attested by room price and the number of private cars).
      I’m also a little surprised by the comments this one is attracting, since the majority of my article was focused on different views of value, and not the peculiarities of mainland tourists.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Fair enough, Tom. I think we all have a hard time pinning down these categories for sure. I think you actually did a pretty good job of pointing out that people have different conceptions of value. Another point that might be made is that many of these groups we encounter are not private individuals spending their own money. Often they are tours sponsored by companies as a benefit to employees or they are client-smoozing affairs. There’s little room for lying about on the beach and, at any rate, from my experience having to take part in them, people are just fine with the hullabaloo, noisy bullhorns and crowding.

      • Andrew The says:

        “I’m also a little surprised by the comments this one is attracting, since the majority of my article was focused on different views of value, and not the peculiarities of mainland tourists.”

        Probably because one of the great commonalities of your readership is that we all (I think) love to travel and see China. One can’t help but notice some differences on these excursions.

        I’ve taken the above mentioned Hainan tour with Chinese friends as well and, though I absolutely hated it, would happily demur to Chinese vacation styles, as I was a guest. I still can’t quite work out if the vacation was actually what they (the mainland visitors — all private parties in my case) wanted or if it was all a horrible scam, however.

        Anyway, it’s their vacation time, and they can spend it how they wish. But I simply cannot abide animal cruelty and abuse. I really don’t know what the problem is with that.

  8. 34f67dg72 says:

    “and spas inspired by Turkish bath’s”
    There’s no need for an apostrophe here.

  9. kingtubby1 says:

    The litmus test for a civilisation or society is how you treat animals.

    • mrchopstik says:

      And how you treat service industry workers. Either way, I’ve seen far too many people from a variety of social and ethnic groups who fail one or both of those tests.

      Tom, as to your post regarding both value and social space, I can relate. However, from my (limited) perspective, when you have little against which to judge the value, then you go with what you’re familiar with (I know, I shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition). To put it another way, if you’re going to pay for something, you want to feel you got everything you could from it in order to maximize the perceived value of the good/service. Perhaps, to foreign eyes and sensitivities, it seems to be taken to an extreme but such judgments are perhaps made with not enough valid input from the consumers themselves.

      Regarding social space, does this have more to do with the mainland tendency to want to be in a crowd (and therefore not alone)? I can only speak for the mainland Chinese and certain Latin American groups with whom I have dealt but such a tendency is quite common in both instances – though the reasons for such may be different. Things are defined as much by social structure and not so much by the idea of “self” (at least in my experience) and there seems to be a natural tendency toward congregation. That this is not so prevalent in Western Europe or the US does not (or at least should not) negate the behavior. And I speak as one who very much values my own personal space – even when in China.

      Just my own $.02.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        I’m not sure if it is so much a litmus test of the society, but I’d tend to agree with Tubby and Chopstick that the treatment of the most defenceless members of one’s society does say something. Beyond *treatment* of the weak, I’d suggest that the way in which one *regards* others, especially the vulnerable, also tells us something, a point that those in this forum who constantly mewl about the uncivilized behaviour of common Chinese folk ought to consider.

        Also, Chopstick, I’m not so sure if the mainland tendency is so much to “want to be in a crowd” so much as it is a lack of discomfort in such crowds. The mistake here might be in making a virtue of necessity. The desire to be alone as expressed by others here, which seems to be a sort of ascetic “travelerism” (“how dare you call me a tourist!), is a feeling I’m familiar with, having felt it early and often in my stay in China. However, clinging to this desire as though it is a virtue says much of the expressive individualism that drives many of us to seek the kind of experience we find in China and other places.

      • mrchopstik says:

        One of these days, Lauren, I’m going to show you how to properly spell my moniker (Chopstik). 😉

        Seriously, though, I phrased that poorly and should have thought more about it before I posted. Yes, there is no such discomfort in crowds with the great majority of mainlanders and it would have been better to state it as such. However, if your point is to suggest that people in crowded circumstances congregate because of necessity, I’m curious to know how it is that Japanese do not trend the same way (and there issues with space are as bad, if not worse, than what I have found in much of mainland China). I’d be curious for the input of others who may have a better view of that. That was the crux of my point as it pertains to mainlanders.

        That being said, I will admit to very much wanting/needing personal space and privacy, not to mention that sense of being alone at times. I personally intensely dislike crowds to the point of almost being phobic about it. Strangely enough, though, I rarely have found it to be an issue when in China. Perhaps standing out as much as I do when I’m there allows me to have a certain sense of privacy as others tend to maintain a polite distance – or at least what I would consider a polite distance. However, I would not argue that such individualism, as you expressed it, is a virtue rather than my own idiosyncratic view and that a virtue or otherwise is a subjective term at best.

      • mrchopstik says:

        Man, I need to proofread before I post.

        (and there issues with space are as bad, if not worse, than what I have found in much of “mainland China)” should instead read “(and their issues with space are as bad, if not worse, than what I have found in much of mainland China)”

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Not to worry, chopstik, I’m not the spelling and grammar police. To clarify, though, my spiffy new mac os just won’t let your name pass without autocorrecting it. I might get it wrong again in the future.

        In terms of the like/dislike of crowds, I mean my modification as an addition (also, and) to what you said. No doubt there are many Chinese for whom crowds are just as annoying and claustrophobic as they are for you and I. Still there is a difference between a born and bred discomfort and a mantra through which one expresses an adopted identity that distinguishes one from the crowd. I’ve met many young Chinese on mountaintops who express disdain for mooing crowds of tourists.

      • Sepra says:

        Curiously, a lot of chinese people (young women) have talked to me about how they hate crowds, unprompted. Maybe they’re just trying to be nice to a person from a country with about 0.5 percent of the chinese population.

  10. Good post Tom. I learned something today – don’t travel with Chinese-sponsored groups when you want a quiet getaway. One question comes to mind: Did you have a good time on your trip/vacation with your Chinese co-workers? Would you join another Chinese planned travel getaway?

    • DocnChaos says:

      Most Chinese (men) cannot compare to my priceless German Schnauzer.
      Of course I am excluding my wife, your wife and your girlfriend.
      Please note: All my exceptions are female!
      There are thousands of stories in the SNAKED City.
      This is only one of them!

    • Tom says:

      Sorry, that wasn’t clear in the post, but I wasn’t on a Chinese sponsored group. We were just at a very popular tourist spot, and saw many Chinese tourists, who for the most part weren’t part of big groups.

      I had a great time with my co-workers, and I would never join a big tour group.

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  12. Gary says:

    Regarding Chinese tourism… those sponsored tour groups will work you on your vacation. I went on one recently with family and I was 1 of 5 American born tour-mates.

    Let me make this a bit clearer. The entire tour was comprised of overseas Chinese from the US, Canada, and Australia. Value for money is not only important for domestic tourists but also these people who have long emigrated overseas. Waking up at 5-6AM everyday just so we could spend more time later in sponsored shopping trips got annoying. I guess the Chinese work ethic applies also to play. It has to be noted that the cost for a 7-10 day/night including room/food/transportation was $99+ cost of plane ticket! Our mates were willing to put up with some BS and the tour operator relied on this value as well as a nice tour guide to ensure satisfaction rates were okay.

    Overall though I was really thankful, as the group was real good, nice and polite as well as equally appalled and aghast at some of their domestic interior cousins.

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