Inflation-hit Chinese go abroad to shop
By George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.
It’s been a month since my last column on Reuters.com as I have been on the road for a while.
When I travel in New York and London, my identity is more like that of a consumer with a dash of journalistic observation. People usually say Hong Kong is a shopping paradise but in my view, Hong Kong is no longer my favorite city for shopping. For U.S. fashion brands such as Cole Haan or Banana Republic, prices are much cheaper in New York. It’s the same for London if you’re a big fan of Burberry or Paul Smith.
The American people I know complain far less about the financial crisis than two or three years ago. Instead, some of them say they actually enjoy some of the benefits. Rents are cheaper. Food is cheaper. Transport companies are unable to raise ticket prices.
Prices for some nice homes in the historic Embassy Row, Washington D.C., look attractive to me. How much can you buy if you have $1 million? You can probably buy a nice house in downtown Washington or a tiny flat in Asia’s financial centre Hong Kong. $1 million is no longer a dream for many Chinese people thanks to the yuan’s appreciation. Let’s face it — America is cheaper and the Chinese are getting richer.
But the Chinese have their own problems; they don’t feel that rich at home.
The inflation reading for June hit a three-year high of 6.4 percent year on year, and Goldman Sachs said we may see further highs in July or even August. During his recent trip to Britain, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, often known as “Grandpa Wen” in China for his kind and down-to-the-earth image, claimed the inflation problem had been solved. He may need to think twice after seeing the angry public reaction in China on the rapid rise in consumer prices, especially food.
You may also want to hear what China’s central banker governor Zhou Xiaochuan said about inflation: he asked the media and public not to “overreact” to the June figure and apparently tried to prove he was doing a good job.
The central bank had many things to deal with, not only inflation, for example international payments, he said at a recent meeting. Mr. Zhou, I respect you as an intelligent and influential central banker, however, to ordinary Chinese such as my parents in Shanghai, your comments on inflation simply make them feel almost hopeless about the outlook for their purchasing power.
Perhaps the Chinese Communist Party, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary, wants to send this message — it’s not that bad to be Chinese. Go abroad and buy whatever you want and you will be proud of holding yuan and being Chinese.
Perhaps I’m too simple and naïve?
George Chen is a Reuters editor and columnist based in Hong Kong.
File photo: Shoppers walk up Fifth Avenue in front of the Cartier jewellery building in New York, December 7, 2008. REUTERS/Chip East