One of the many things that is a bit of a change of pace for people new to China is the concept of bargaining. In the West we are used to relatively simple and painless transactions, someone asks for a price, we pay, both parties leave satisfied. However, in much of the rest of the world that is simply not the case.
Shopping in China is a more, shall we say, “organic” experience. Where prices are constantly negotiated, and two people can very easily pay a very different price for the same thing, bought from the same place, on the same day. Some Westerners have mastered this art, many have not, many more claim to have mastered this art, but really have not.
In general laowais fall into one of three categories of bargainers…
The Innocent: Full of many people new to China, or who have rarely left their Expat Bubble. These are the kind of people who say something like “600RMB for Nike Shoes? Why that’s cheaper then I get it back home. I’ll take it!” to someone on the street. They tend to either take the first price offered, and may occasionally be happy with a 10-20 RMB discount.
The Hardliners: On the complete opposite end of the spectrum. These are the people who think that the very clear “Foreign Pricing System” (i.e. when foreigners charged 5-10 times as much as a local for the same thing) is exceptionally unfair. They are very hard bargainers, who frequently walk away and have merchants chase them down streets to go for their offer, after initially claiming things to be unfair. They tend to be the most frustrated and frustrating bargainers to deal with.
The Generous: Somewhere in between the two. These are the kind of people who bargain a bit, but justify their overspending with statements like “People here are so poor, they could use the extra money.”
I would imagine that most of you reading this site are somewhere in between the second two options, probably depending on your mood, and how badly you want the item in question. I myself, have never been been much of a hardliner, I am far too often an open book, either indicating or flat out saying how much I like something before asking the price, never a wise move for the pocket book. Far too often, I fall into the third category, which I was happy to exist in until I came to a sudden realization.
It’s ethically wrong.
I came to the conclusion that being generous and a touch careless in your spending here is not in the best interest of anyone, and probably hurts the country in the long term. From Mao watches to massages, we are inflating the financial value of tourist goods and services. Simple economics show us that a lucrative venture will have more investors, and as a result of more and more souvenir sellers start to pop up.
Sounds good so far, I mean, it’s giving people jobs, right?
That’s what I thought, until I considered my trip to Cambodia, where I had two consecutive tuk-tuk drivers who had quit their jobs as English teachers since they would make more money in the tourist industry. This was followed up on my most recent trip to Xinjiang Province, where I met a tour guide who had a degree in computer engineering. I imagine that there are many more cases all over Asia, and the rest of the developed world than these ones.
Here we have some clearly intelligent and capable individuals, who could be performing meaningful jobs that benefit their community and help along its development, but instead they are telling me where to buy the best souvenirs because it is more profitable. Surely that can’t be right.
In overpaying, and in a big way, we are creating a market for cheap fixes to problems facing the developed word, as opposed to having them find long term solutions. One must look no further than our neighbours in Asia, South Korea and Thailand as interesting case studies.
Post 1953, South Korea decimated from Japanese occupation and a Civil War decided to focus on its industry and agriculture, and it now stands as one of the great success stories of Asian development. While Thailand on the other hand, focused on building its tourist infrastructure, and not its own industries. It is easy to see which nation is further along in its development. These are far from isolated examples, as one can easily look at Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Cambodia and probably place them more or less in one of those two camps.
Also, we need to think of the effects that the inflation is causing on the locals. If we decide to go to a tourist cafe and pay 50RMB for fried rice, then what is to the stop the nearby local restaurant from upping their prices as well? This could have a pretty adverse effect on the locals, who may have a harder time affording dinner as a result of our actions (and therefore have to turn to the quick tourist buck, which in turn continues the cycle even more…).
Of course, I am not saying that a nation as large, diverse, and rapidly-developing as China is going to ignore its own needs in favour of a quick tourist buck. However, there are certainly regions of this country that are more dependent on tourism for cash than their own economies, especially when you veer away from the highly developed coast.
While tourism certainly has its place in the economy, it simply can not be the focus. There is simply no sustainability, both economically and environmentally, to relentless growth in this sector. Also, if for whatever reason the tourists decide to stop coming, the economic effects can be catastrophic. One needs to look no further than the economic loss being suffered by Mexico as a result of Swine Flu, or by Thailand during their recent protests to see examples of this.
It is be a shame to see anywhere have economic problems compound an already difficult situation. However, if we want to help prevent that extra problem, which can domino into many other things, because let’s face it, people do crazy things when they do not have enough money, then we need to be more responsible with our own money.
While overpaying for one little Mao watch is not exactly going to change the make-up the entire economy, the trend certainly could, and having that sort of an unforseen side effect on the local economy could just be what ends up happening. Even if it was not what you bargainned for.