Sunday, December 23, 2007

China falls for Christmas -- at least in its stores

China's shopping malls in late December leave little doubt that the country has been smitten by Christmas, if not in quite the way devout Christians might hope.

Christmas has secured a spot on the Chinese calendar as a cherished excuse to buy, buy, buy. And while Christianity is indeed spreading in the officially atheist country, many shoppers have only a faint idea of the holiday's religious connection.

But their manner of celebration is sure to win the blessing of at least one group: economists.

"It's not really a real holiday," said Benny Zhang, 29, a computer programmer outside a Beijing mall with his wife. "It's just a nice atmosphere for shopping and a chance to swap gifts with each other."

Economists long despaired that the Chinese propensity to save, not spend, was storing up trouble should China's exports falter and hurting the world economy because it was not buying enough from abroad.

Even as China has become wealthier, the savings culture has been reinforced by the dismantling of the social security system, which forced ordinary people to keep enough money on hand for education, medicine and old age.

But Christmas reveals that Chinese consumers, buoyed by fast rising incomes, have now burst on the scene with a fervor for shopping that someday might rival their American counterparts.

"It is hard to get away from cultural norms," said Anna Kalifa, head of research in Beijing for Jones Lang LaSalle, a real estate management firm.

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