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🕊️3 parallel society and business trends between China and the U.S. (Part I)
We have more in common after all 🥺
I have always thought China and the U.S. as being quite similar. As a collective, we enjoy socializing in groups, we are often workaholics, money serves as a motivator for many, and we like to get the upper hand over each other.
As a Chinese business reporter who’ve lived in NYC before Covid and now in Shanghai, I have noticed that people in both countries are reacting to the larger macro context of the economic challenges in a similar manner.
China has recently emerged from three years of Covid-related restrictions, combined with crackdowns on the technology and entertainment sectors, which have had a partial impact on the livelihoods of many middle-class Chinese consumers. As a result, these consumers now have to prioritize value over luxury. Additionally, young graduates, who were already budget-conscious while having to face taxing zero-Covid measures, such as being unable to leave campus for months, are now coming through only to find a gloomy job market with the highest youth employment rate in record.
Amidst the AI war, tech war, chip war, and trade war between China and the U.S., which tend to receive the lion’s share of the public attention, I would like to draw your focus to the shared similarities and hope that this listicle/explainer serves as an inspiration for you to keep an eye out for parallels between countries in our increasingly politically charged and fragmented world.
I encourage you to join me andnext Thursday at 10:30 PM China time/10:30 AM EST/7:30AM PT/4:30PM CET for a live discussion on Twitter [👈 click to schedule]. Together, we can make sense of this crazy world we live in.
1. Quiet quitting in the U.S. VS lie flat/let it rot in China 🏝️
I don’t think I need to explain ‘quiet quitting’, which has made many Americans reflect on their relationship with work. I think it is more like a life tip, while ‘lying flat’ 躺平, along with a more extreme version ‘let it rot’ 摆烂, are aspirations to chill rather than practices that are widely adopted by the Chinese people.
‘Lie flat’ began a bit earlier than ‘quiet quitting’, and I can’t explain its origin without using this meme, which stems from a still photo from actor GE You in the 1993 sitcom I Love MY Family. This says it all:
‘Ge You lie’ 葛优躺 was listed as one of the top 10 internet slangs of 2016 in a report from Ministry of Education, and as a half-assed language student, I think ‘lie flat’ is likely to be a variation of ‘Ge you lie’ phenomenon. *Fun fact*: the actor himself sued for business usage of his photo and pocketed US$1.1 million by earlier this year and SCMP titled the piece of news ‘making money while lying flat’.
A few years later in 2019, the anti-996 movement of the tech sector erupted, that’s when people started to resonate more with the widespread sentiment of seeking a better work-life balance.
Dig deeper: A columnist at Southern Metropolis Daily shared a similar view with me in 2016 about ‘Ge You lie’, saying that people were envying the state of being in a fast-paced modern life.
As for the ‘lie flat’ generation — rent collectors in Shanghai, the second generation of factory owners, etc. — I’d like to say they didn’t appear recently, their presence are just magnified by social media. The majority of working class and middle class still need to hustle to make ends meet, they ‘lie flat’ after a busy work week, tops.
2. Influencer as a career aspiration 💥
Over the years, we’ve seen multiple reports in the U.S., about the career aspiration of ‘kids these days’ with varying (and overall alarming) statistics: famously, Morning Consult reported in 2019 that 86% of 2,000 young Americans between 13-38 year-olds wanted to be an influencer; this year, mar-tech company IZEA Research said 61% of 1,299 respondents ages 18-29 would quit their jobs for a full-time influencer job.
In China, Weibo recently released data from a questionnaire titled “What contemporary young people prioritize in employment." The survey included nearly 10,000 fresh graduates, and the results showed that 61.6% of them would consider pursuing emerging careers such as influencers and livestream hosts when seeking a job.
China has over 150 million livestream host accounts by the end of 2022, and the 20 billion yuan livestream and short-video industry generated more than 100 million job opportunities, according to a May development report [Chinese] by China Association of Performing Arts.
Dig deeper: In an unstable job market where top-tier tech jobs can be uncertain and Covid restrictions limit real-life activities, the generation of digital natives tends to find solace and hope online over the last few years.
The surge in popularity of livestream in 2020, along with media coverage and government policies promoting livestream e-commerce in less developed areas [Chinese], has contributed to its boost. Young people may also see livestreaming as a form of validation aligned with traditional values.
3. The comeback of buffets in the U.S. VS specialized buffets and community canteens in China 🍽️
Alright, I’m reading this quote from Lilly Jan, a food and beverage management lecturer at Cornell in the New York Times, on the topic of buffets making a comeback in the age of inflation, and I just feel like one can simply say the same thing about China:
“Americans want the consistency because they are afraid to take risks with their dollars as relates to food,” she said. “They want to go somewhere with the kids where everyone can have what they want and it doesn’t break the bank, but they want to make it an experience.”
In China, a much more ‘involuted’ market, consumers are not solely attracted to general buffets; instead, they tend to gravitate towards specialized buffet options such as pizza, hotpot, and Japanese buffets. This is reflected in the market, which experienced a significant 35.6% decline in the number of buffet-style restaurants in 2021, as reported by the food intelligence platform Meituan.
“If you position your restaurant as a buffet, you are doomed to fail… Our strength and focus is pizza. Customers come through the door because they like pizza, they don’t choose Big because they want a buffet.” 👏👏
Another trending budget-conscious dining concept in China that has been generating social media buzz is the community canteen 社区食堂. It is usually a government subsidized canteen style establishment that brings affordability and convenience to senior citizens in urban sectors in China, and some of them are also run in buffet style.
My friend ZHAO Lu, a Gen-Z freelance writer (hire her!) and I went to one in Shanghai recently, we paid 28 yuan (<US$4) for a buffet that has over a dozen options, and the staff was super friendly.
“It’s tough to find somewhere to eat a nutrious and balanced meal in big cities,” she said, calling it a perfect solution for “the wage workers who can barely afford to eat out”.
Dig deeper: Here I’d like to refer to a Chinese idiom “People take food as the utmost important need” 民以食为天. In an economic downturn, food becomes a primary area where people look to cut costs.
While the buffet concept has seen a decline in China, there are several factors contributing to this trend beyond consumer preferences. One notable factor is Beijing's promotion of the "Clean Plate campaign" 光盘行动 since 2013, which encourages individuals to minimize food waste. Additionally, the health-consciousness of the middle-class has increased, leading them to view buffets as less healthy dining options.
The younger generation want to eat well at an affordable price and the see the type of canteen as an undiscovered gem, which is how they describe it on social media. And perhaps the families frequent specialized buffets for good value and enjoyable experiences. In this way, we are all trying to ride out the economic down in a manner that doesn't require us to ‘eat bitter’ 吃苦. 🔚
Do you agree with my observations?
Stay tuned for more parallel trends in part II! Read more:
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