A recent controversy involving Italian luxury fashion house Dolce & Gabbana has dragged China’s considerable consumer market back into the spotlight. A controversial advertisement deemed racist resulted in the cancellation of a scheduled D&G fashion show in Shanghai, but it also shed light on the vexing nature of a Communist nation toeing the line between extravagance and more traditional perceptions of what it means to be a Communist state.
This is not the first time that the intersection between state control and the Chinese’s love of luxury goods has intersected with Western media coverage. In November of 2017, three members of the UCLA basketball team were arrested for shoplifting from a Louis Vuitton store in the Chinese city of Hangzhou while in China for an international exhibition match. At the time, those unfamiliar with Chinese consumer culture may have been surprised that tourists would be privy to such high-end consumer outlets.
Traditionally, Communism hasn’t been associated with materialism. In fact, the opposite has been historically true. Joseph Stalin saw a war with capitalism – and its direct offshoot, consumerism – as inevitable. Self-sacrifice and denial have been held as virtues in nearly all Communist societies. Without spartanism being a virtue, the complete, utter lack of excess in Communist societies would be incomprehensible – look no further than Venezuela as an example of how utterly and complete the Communist-Socialist system eradicates any concept of consumerism.
This is why the reality of modern China can seem so paradoxical. China is, by all accounts, a Communist state. Yet, as recent news stories have illuminated to the outside world, it is also a nation that has seemingly embraced consumerism. This embrace has served the purpose of bolstering the image of China as a modernized superpower while also allowing its many wealthy residents a comfortable life that is comparable to the luxuries afforded by a Western existence – helping ensure that China’s brightest and wealthiest remain at home.
Statistics indicate that conspicuous consumption is very much a staple in Chinse culture. If you’ve seen or read Crazy Rich Asians, you might not be surprised to find out that Chinese consumers account for an estimated, whopping 33% of global luxury sales. That percentage could constitute as much as 46% by 2025.
Yet, as intertwined as Chinese society and consumerism seem to be, the relationship between Communism and consumerism in China is not simple. In fact, it’s very complex.
As the nation of China has worked hard to establish itself as an independent global power to be reckoned with, its consumer culture remains inextricably linked to foreign brands. Tall, leggy, light-skinned models are often trotted out to be the faces of foreign brands, Dolce & Gabbana amongst them. While the audiences being marketed to is undoubtedly Chinese, the message is clear: foreign-ness – most often of the Caucasian shade – is a sign of wealth and status, and the brands that emanate that foreign brand tend to do well in the Chinese marketplace.
Chinese consumers are conscious of this, even if they aren’t eager to face or admit that there is inherent appeal in brands that are decidedly non-Chinese. On both an individual and national level – especially in such a fiercely nationalistic country – this is a tenuous line to toe.
When a non-Caucasian nation is promoting its cultural identity, it can be difficult to ignore that foreigners can be hired for jobs simply because they are white, or that not only China, but Asia more broadly, is ‘obsessed with white skin’. This is not a purely Asian phenomenon – it exists in the Middle East, Africa, etc. But amidst China’s massive economy, extravagant consumer culture, and Communist party, the contradiction between foreign, white status and Chinese national identity can become particularly glaring.
It seems that, so long as the status of foreign brands as luxury symbols to be aspired to – the clothing equivalent of the most effective skin-lightening treatment – is not alluded to directly, brands are free to tap into the accepted ethos. But, cross the line into overt, borderline-insulting Western glorification and brands run the risk of not only offending customers directly, but of violating the very image that China’s Communist regime stands upon: Chinese cultural identity as a point of national pride.
This is where Dolce & Gabbana erred.
‘The ad that started the firestorm featured a Chinese model in heavy golden jewelry and a red sequined dress, making clumsy attempts to eat pizza, pasta, and a giant cannoli with a pair of chopsticks. Lanterns and calligraphy crowded the background. The Chinese narration pronounced the words “Dolce & Gabbana” with an exaggerated accent. As a Chinese woman, I found the videos to be intellectually lazy and in poor taste. The ill-conceived concept exoticizes Chinese culture and infantilizes its people’ (Foreign Policy)
The Chinese marketplace can be a crown jewel for brands that are able to capture the imaginations of the people. Brands such as the National Basketball League, Tesla, and – once upon a time – Dolce & Gabbana have found this out. But the nature of the Communist nation makes room for political error exceedingly small, as the Italian company found out when its products were pulled from shelves and subject to what amounts to a national boycott.
The dualistic nature – she giveth, she taketh away – of the Chinese consumer economy means that it must be straddled like the most volatile of bulls. It is, after all, a delicate balancing act between Communism and Consumerism – in fact, it may just be the first trial of its kind.