Red rabbits and China’s rich ‘Gen Z’ nationalists

‘These young adults are now well placed to influence future decisions based on their worldview’

As China prepares to celebrate the New Year on January 22, luxury brands are gearing up for the year of the rabbit with an array of luxury rabbit-themed goods.

They include a £29,000 (US$35,281) gold and diamond-encrusted rabbit watch by Dior or an £850 floppy-eared hat from Burberry. Japanese streetwear brand Ambush has reportedly sold out of its £380 pink bunny balaclavas.

The target market? China’s 400 million-strong army of young consumers, as they have the power to make or break foreign labels seeking their fortune in China.

Like their western peers, China’s “Gen Z” consumers are avid users of social media, but that is where the similarities end.

This generation has grown up during China’s rapid economic development in the 2000s and 2010s, which is a marked contrast to their peers in the West, who came of age in the shadow of the 2008 financial crisis.

As a result, they have been characterized as being more confident and better educated than previous generations.

Baby boomers

Another notable characteristic of this generation has been its size – one of the largest since the baby boomers in Europe and North America.

The parallels between the two have been apparent with both enjoying cultural, economic, and political influence, with China’s “Gen Z” being labeled as the next “baby boomers.”

These young adults are now well placed to influence future decisions, which will be based on their worldview. Questions about how they will use their influence have already been asked – and the answer can be seen in their habits as consumers.

One of the most notable signs of this has been the rise of guochao, roughly translated as “national wave.” Brands from this movement have sought to combine Chinese traditions with modern creations.

This emerged from Li Ning’s Wu Dao collection, showcased at New York’s Fashion Week in 2018. Li’s Taoist-inspired designs have marked a wider trend for Chinese consumers to embrace domestic brands.

‘Made in China’ brands have become trendy for young Chinese. Image: File

Guochao’s success has been illustrative of several developments within China. Firstly, it shows how spending habits have changed, with more younger consumers wanting to see their culture incorporated into goods. Local brands are favored over foreign ones.

This reflects a different view of Chinese identity among “Gen Z” and Millennials for whom China has always been a strong nation that rivals the western world.

Guochao’s efforts to redefine the meaning of “Made in China” strikes a chord as it aims to move away from its association with cheap, poor-quality products that were the hallmark of the early days of the country’s development.

Yet consumer habits of younger Chinese have not only shaped the nation’s perceived identity but have presented a notable challenge for foreign companies.

Another development has been the popularity of traditional clothing, most notably the long-sleeved robe or the hanfu. The market for the costume has grown significantly and is expected to be worth US$1.85 billion in 2022.

Social media

As with guochao, hanfu fever has also been driven by younger consumers, with TV period dramas and social media platforms playing a notable role in popularising the costume.

This was demonstrated by how hanfu-related content has been viewed 47.7 million times on Douyin or Tik Tok. Young Chinese consumers have popularised a costume that had once been the preserve of a small number of enthusiasts.

In keeping with guochao, the popularity of the hanfu has also been illustrative of a wider effort to redefine China’s identity by tapping into vintage tropes.

Again, this has been typical of newly affluent and confident societies which seek to reshape their identity into one that is in keeping with their perceived status – most notably South Korea at the height of its cultural influence and Japan during its long postwar economic boom.

The most obvious challenge posed by young Chinese consumers has been in how they favor domestic brands over foreign ones.

Running into a political storm … Nike sports shoes in China. Photo: Wikimedia

This has often been interpreted as a form of “nationalism,” most notably in the boycotts against Nike and Adidas in 2021 over their decision not to use cotton from Xinjiang province. The fact that neither brand has fully recovered its position in the Chinese market illustrates its potency.

Coincidentally, it was this backlash that would see Chinese brands such as Anta and Li Ning Co outpace their western rivals for the first time since their entry into the Chinese market.

In this way, shopping has become another outpost of politics.

Yet “consumer nationalism” is a reflection of a broader disenchantment with the West, revealed in the way many have begun to perceive nations – most notably the United States – as foes.

Such a change was noted by a 2022 study from the University of Oxford, which found that Chinese people born after 1990 are more likely to hold negative views of the US.

Assertive stance

It’s important to note that rather than being the result of top-down anti-Western state propaganda, this antipathy is largely driven by Western anti-China sentiment as promulgated, for example, by former President Donald Trump during his term of office.

This is likely to place greater pressure on the Chinese Communist Party to take a more assertive stance toward the West. And a future politburo made up of Millennials and “Gen Z” may also result in a more confrontational China.

In both business and politics, foreign concepts – be they fashion items or Western-style democracy – no longer have the same appeal that they enjoyed with previous generations.

Tom Harper is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of East London.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.