Eye on Asia

China’s online shopping frenzy is no panacea for the clear air and water we really need for survival

  • More than 1.87 billion parcels would be delivered in the six days after November 11, mostly wrapped in non-recyclable and non-reusable plastic
  • Imagine how many of these will end up in our oceans, our water supply or eventually in our bodies
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 November, 2018, 1:18pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2018, 3:08pm

The inaugural China International Import Expo wrapped up on the 10th of November with US$57.83 billion worth of deals agreed for the year ahead.

This was followed by a record-breaking result of China’s Singles’ Day, or “Double 11” shopping event. For the 24 hours on 11th November, the gross merchandise value (GMV) reported by Alibaba had reached US$30.8 billion, a 27 per cent growth from last year, more than 4,100 times the volume of 2009 when the event was first created.

It is now the largest shopping event in the world, a combination of Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Prime Day on steroids. Whoever thinks China’s economy is in trouble must be mistaken.

However, the broader economic picture does seem less optimistic. China’s third-quarter gross domestic product growth of 6.5 per cent was the slowest pace since the Global Financial Crisis 10 years ago. According to the National Statistics Bureau, October retail sales rose 8.6 per cent, the slowest pace since May.

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The Singles’ Day splurge seems to underline the recovery of consumer confidence of the world’s largest population. But there are limits to how much one day can determine the health of a country’s economy. The question is how long and well it could be sustained.

As a 30-something single woman living in Beijing with an office job and good salary, I perhaps fit most of the criteria of target customers for the Singles’ Day promotions. But my personal shopping record this year was, at best, very humble.

I spent less than 400 yuan (US$60) and actually had regretted spending half of it because I bought more than necessary to get the discount that I am still confused about.

It’s not that I don’t want nice things with good deals, but the time has come when I can no longer afford manic shopping.

Working in the private sector, my income has basically hit a plateau since 2015, but the small Beijing flat I’ve been renting since 2014 is now 40 per cent more expensive. My stock investment has taken a 20 per cent plunge so far this year, thanks to the plunge in China’s A-shares market. And rather unfortunately, I’ve just had to pay a five-figure medical bill due to a recent injury and hospital operation.

Under such circumstances, I have to become a rational shopper: conscious, frugal and always thinking about the long-term future. Nonetheless, the Singles’ Day shopping even is created with just the opposite logic. It is a celebration of thoughtless consumerism, a big party where shopping is more about having fun, than obtaining the necessities to survive.

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Starting as early as a month before the big date, my phone was constantly bombarded with brand promotions and messages from online shops, as they followed the digital trail of my online shopping history. They notified me about all the things I should have wanted, regardless of whether I actually needed them.

The evening of November 10 was marked with a four-hour long singing and dancing gala on television, something that was typically reserved for the Lunar New Year celebrations. Most people, including myself, had to wait until midnight to finish our shopping transactions to enjoy the complicated discount.

Tired, confused and annoyed, I gave up on even pondering whether the “deal” I received was really worth it. I felt drunk. It was no wonder that someone accidentally bought a live pig, a peacock and a salamander, according to the South China Morning Post.

The wastage that went into the Singles’ Day extravaganza went beyond just time and money. Excessive packaging is another problem.

The State Post Bureau estimated that during the period between 11th and 16th of November, there would be more than 1.87 billion parcels delivered nationwide. Most of these packages are wrapped in plastics that are can neither be recycled, nor reused. Just imagine how many of those will end up in our oceans, our water system, and eventually, in our own bodies.

‘Drunk’ Chinese man’s Singles’ Day shopping frenzy ends with a live pig, peacock and giant salamander

Three days after the online shopping frenzy on November 14, Beijing was smothered by the worst air pollution so far this year. The level of particulate matter in the air, called PM2.5, shot past 300 on the Air Quality Index, a redline definition of “hazardous air” according to the US Embassy in Beijing.

Looking out to the unrecognisable greyish landscape, with barely visible buildings, I suddenly realised that I could have bought as many face masks as possible on Singles’ Day to get me through this dismal winter.

It is a pity that we cannot buy clean air, clean water, or any of the things that really matter. Their supply are usually in shortage and have never been on sale. If we keep on consuming and disposing without restraint, we will end up paying a very high price for it.

Liu Haining is a journalist and aspiring author