Saving China

I’m in a mall on Xidan Beidajie, a well known Beijing shopping street, gazing in wonder at the wide, open, white tile spaces that are not filled with happy spenders.

Being a business journalist by trade and a reluctant shopper by nature, it’s not the 12-floor epic, the fully-stocked fantasy land of Chinese and Western shops, the high-end labels, the latest technology, or the entertainment for bored teenagers that I’m geeking out on here.

It’s that at mid-Saturday afternoon in the glossy, clean, anywhere-in-the-world mall most shops are empty (except the Apple store, which is rammed with people) and few people are carrying shopping bags.

It was the same at midday Friday and on Saturday night at shopping street Wangfujing, over near the business and embassy districts.

So if the air-conditioned malls with the cutsie names for each floor (Xidan Beidajie’s eight was ‘dating’, seven was ‘sporty’) are failing to suck in shoppers in upwardly mobile Beijing, is the end nigh?

Not quite. Outside, the el-cheapo food and clothing markets are humming, both pumping with locals and tourists hunting for a bargain or grabbing dinner.

However, if it’s the same in clean and aspirational malls across the country then it’s no wonder China’s latest April retail spending stats – which of course you all read – fell compared to the previous month (they rose year-on-year, but not by as much as everyone expected).

If all those wannabe-affluent Chinese consumers aren’t going to step up and do their bit for the country – that’s by spending money in the shops that pay taxes and sell expensive products – maybe they also aren’t going to be the ones to save China when the property market decays into ignominious rubble.

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