Fraternal greetings from Ikea, Beijing
Strolling around my new neighbourhood in Beijing, a long-time haunt of foreigners, I was confronted by a sign in Russian and English reading: "Welcome to Alien's Street." In fact, I felt alienated only once in my initial week in China, and that was when I went to Ikea.
It wasn't quite as frenetic as the branch near Brent Cross, where I abandoned my purchases at the queue for the till and fled, but the crowds provided evidence that the Chinese middle class has embraced consumerism with the alacrity of its western counterparts. Young, newly affluent couples - known to the marketing men as Chuppies - hovered over plain white pottery plates and black anglepoise table lamps. My driver, Lao Cheung, whose unfortunate task it was to translate during my haphazard shopping trip, pronounced, "Quality good but prices high." His wife, he said, would love to buy household goods here, if only they could afford it.
The American parcel delivery company UPS is hoping to carry more American goods to China, and so recently it conducted a survey of 12,000 middle-class Chinese consumers. It found that, in Beijing, the home appliance people covet most is a microwave; in Wuhan, they want a fridge; in Shanghai, they're mad for DVD players and fashion; in Chengdu, the purchase of choice is a laptop. It even asked about packaging preferences, concluding that if you're trying to sell the laptop to a Chinese man, you should package it in blue, but if your product is aimed at women, you should try red, the colour of celebrations. Do not use purple if you want men to buy, nor orange for women. White, despite traditionally symbolising death, is now quite acceptable.
Such arcane detail is important to western companies trying to reach China's 1.3 billion potential consumers. Until recently China was a nation of savers, but now the Chinese are on a spending spree and consumption is expected to increase by 18 per cent a year for the next decade.
A trip around a hangar-sized branch of Carrefour, the French supermarket chain, revealed a bewildering range of Chinese brands, most of which I could not recognise because I cannot read Chinese characters. I found myself gravitating to anything that looked familiar - a Scotch-Brite mop, Comfort fabric conditioner - or had Roman lettering, or even a picture I could make out. American brands are popular here (the Chinese like packaging that incorporates the Stars and Stripes) but Chinese companies have a head start in the world's largest potential market. Now China is trying to establish its brands overseas, so that Chinese companies can become multinationals. You, too, may one day buy Goldfish washing-up liquid, or even - my favourite brand name so far - Rich Boss shoes.
Premier Wen Jiabao would have been far more comfortable discussing economic growth and consumer trends on his visit to London this month than Darfur, Iran's nuclear programme or - heaven forbid - China's human-rights record. These days China's growth is so important to the stability of the world economy and the prospects of international companies, that the Chinese leadership can usually skirt round uncomfortable subjects.
At home, they avoid the awkward issues, too. My Ikea mattress was delivered just as Communist Party officials prepared for a concert in the Great Hall of the People commemorating the 30th anniversary of the death of Chairman Mao. But, while Mao's memory had to be honoured formally, it was scarcely mentioned in the state-controlled media. The evening news on Channel 9, the English-language service of the Chinese state broadcaster, led on Wen Jiabao's visit to Europe, and followed up with a report on Chinese investment abroad. No mention of Mao. Chinese-language broadcasts were equally reticent on the legacy of the Great Helmsman, who can never have envisaged the arrival of Ikea, Wal-Mart, Carrefour or even (as advertised all over town) "Zara - coming soon!".
A business student calling herself Lisa, sitting with her friend in a tea-house near Mao's mausoleum, explained: "Our teachers tell us about what Mao said, but I think Mao is for back then, not for now." The old saw that Mao was "70 per cent right, 30 per cent wrong", pronounced by the government five years after his death, remains officially unaltered, probably because the authorities would rather let a sleeping Chairman lie than stir his memory. A few days in Beijing shows just how little today's China reflects the teachings of the Little Red Book.
In the end I could not stomach Ikea and requested to be taken somewhere more Chinese. The long-suffering Lao Cheung drove me to an indoor market that sells the kind of crockery and artefacts Round-Eyes deem authentic; I found beautiful turquoise crackle-glaze plates for the same price as Ikea's ugly pottery. I suppose the next stage of China's evolution into a consumer society will be when the upper middle class becomes snobbish about mass-market goods and wants to believe what it's buying is hand-crafted, and somehow morally and aesthetically superior. But I think there's quite a long way to go before that.
Lindsey Hilsum is China correspondent for Channel 4 News