The price of perfection in China

By Li Xiaoyu

A screenshot of the Taobao homepage
Photo credits: Li Xiaoyu

NANJING, China — Another Singles’ Day, the Chinese version of Black Friday, has come and gone. Countless people participated in the annual online shopping spree — so many that just a minute past midnight on Nov. 11, sales on Alibaba had already reached $1 billion.

The one-day shopping frenzy reflects the broader growth of Chinese e-commerce and its place in the worldwide market. According to Statista, the gross merchandise volume of China’s e-commerce market will reach RMB 32.7 trillion or US$4.8 trillion in 2019, and the industry will continue to enjoy above-average development over the next few years.

China’s consumption model has gradually transformed from commodity-driven to bein experience-driven, especially among young people. Rather than focusing on the basic quality of goods, young consumers now demand other additional values such as brand name and fashionability. For young Chinese people, their consumption behavior represents a manifestation of their lifestyle and a display of their personality to society.

This scene is where “affordable fashion luxury” (AFL) made its debut. AFL satisfies young people’s desire to show off their fashionable taste without spending too much money. It encompasses sports brands like Nike and Adidas, makeup brands like Estée Lauder, Lancôme and Yves Saint Laurent, and clothing brands like VERO MODA, Zara and Levi Strauss.

AFL gained popularity in e-commerce, especially among young Chinese consumers. Nearly 80 percent of consumers choose AFL brands which have relatively high quality and low prices or look for high-end brands with a higher price-performance ratio. According to the 2017 China Luxury E-Commerce Development Report, Chinese e-commerce platforms have been collaborating with the global luxury goods industry —including AFL — to increasingly feature their products. In addition, large luxury brands like Louis Vuitton are building their own Chinese e-commerce platforms, setting up Chinese online storefronts.

As consumption of AFL surges in China, concerns arise about its growing popularity. Many fear AFL advertisements have imposed an exaggerated standard of “perfection” on the Chinese youth. Advertisements with pictures of “perfect” women in fancy clothes and makeup pop up when opening shopping apps like Taobao, Jingdong and Vipshop.

“It feels like what I am really buying is not this lipstick itself, rather I am buying [the] beauty represented behind this lipstick,” said one HNC student. Several female students interviewed at the HNC admitted they were influenced by advertisements to buy AFL products they do not need.

Interviewees reflected that advertisements convinced them that using certain brands of cosmetics will give them the  “perfect female image.” Though many clearly understand that this is an impossible mission, their buying choices still reflect their pursuit of “perfection.” For example, a facial treatment essence from SK-II has gained a Chinese nickname — “shen xian shui,” which literally means “water for the immortals,” the implication being this product will make you as beautiful as a goddess. When a product becomes a hot commodity, many young Chinese women feel as if using or owning it will guarantee beauty, youth and popularity.  

Worse, AFL is highly unafforable. On average, university students receive RMB 1000 to 1500, or US $146 to $219, per month from their parents as spending money. Meanwhile, the average price for just one tube of designer lipstick is around RMB 150 to 300, or US $22 to $44. Many cannot afford AFL, but there is strong pressure to purchase these products in order to fit in with their peers. To buy the products they want, many young Chinese spend less on food and books, take part-time jobs or borrow money through apps like Ant Check Later, a personal consumer credit service.

Some students even take out “nude loans,” a practice that has since been banned by the Chinese government. Nude loans were presented as a simple way to get quick money. As collateral, women were required to take a picture or video of themselves nude, holding their ID card and student card while reading aloud their name, the loan amount and any other information the creditor wanted. The nude videos would be released on the internet or sold to strangers if the women failed to pay the money back with full interest on time, with interest rates reaching as high as 30 percent. Some were asked for sexual favors to offset their debt. In most cases, poor young women were not capable of paying the money back. As a result, their naked photos and videos were leaked across the internet. Many female university students who took nude loans dropped out of school, some contracted HIV and some who felt broke and humiliated even committed suicide. Such was the price for “perfection.”

Arthur Miller said, “Today you’re unhappy? What is the salvation? Go shopping.” But can shopping satisfy the desire for perfection? E-commerce and affordable fashion luxury have created an impossible standard of beauty for many young Chinese women —as a result, many pay the price for the pursuit of perfection.

Li Xiaoyu is an HNC M.A. ’20 student concentrating in International Law


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