Spurred on by state media which have let rip at the “debt-riddled” United States, the Chinese have listened with wide-eyed amazement to tales of American people living well beyond their means.
The US credit crisis has brought to light a fundamental difference between thrifty consumers in China — the largest foreign holder of US debt — and their credit-loving US counterparts.
After Standard & Poor’s downgraded Washington’s top notch credit rating this month, some Chinese have shown scorn for Americans they see as spending money before they earn it.
“They should just buy what they can pay for,” said Zhao Kai, a Beijing resident, explaining that like many Chinese people he “prefers to pay cash and does not like being in debt”.
According to Forbes magazine, the average Chinese household had debts worth just 17 percent of its annual income last year, against 136 percent in the United States.
“Compared to Americans who live on credit, when a Chinese person earns 100 yuan ($15.6), he or she will save between 25 and 30 yuan,” said Wang Qing, a manager at investment bank China International Capital Corp.
Some economists attribute American consumers’ growing dependence on credit partly to a sharp rise in living costs — particularly fuel and food prices — that has outstripped salary growth in the past decade.
China’s enthusiasm for saving, meanwhile, is driven by inadequate health insurance and pensions and a one-child policy that forces parents to rely on themselves when they once would have counted on their offspring to look after them in old age.
Returns on investment in China are also high, which encourages people to save so that they can place their cash in real estate or other money-making schemes.
This is a source of frustration for the authorities, who would like to see domestic consumption playing a stronger role in the growth of China’s export-dependent economy.
According to China’s central bank, household savings reached 5.2 trillion dollars by the end of June, or around 4,000 dollars per person.
Credit cards are still making inroads in China, where only around 100 million people in the 1.3-billion-strong country use them.
Consultants McKinsey say just five percent of Chinese people had credit cards at the end of 2009, compared to the United States where 60 percent of the population had one or more.
But even those who own one use it sparingly.
“You mustn’t abuse your credit card, otherwise you become a slave. If you don’t have money, you just don’t buy anything,” said Li Yingsong, a businessman.
Chinese people prefer paying cash.
“Having money in hand reassures us, it gives a sense of security. People I know hardly ever use credit,” said Cao Yang, a translator in Beijing.
Chinese consumers’ aversion to credit is so big that some high-rollers have been known to pay for hugely expensive items in cash.
In the eastern city of Qingdao, for instance, one investor famously bought an 80-million-yuan building with wads of cash in 2009.
But as property prices spike, more people in China are now having to borrow money to buy a flat, plunging them into debt.
Many have taken out bank loans that they have to pay back over 20 years, sometimes putting more than half of their salaries into monthly repayments.
China’s fun-loving youngsters — more open to the Western way of life — are also starting to consume more than their parents or grandparents, who experienced hardships under a strict Communist regime.
The “yue guang zu”, which literally means ‘the clan that spends all their monthly salary’, are on the rise, particularly in urban areas.
As only children, some of today’s youngsters have never wanted for money, and spend without thinking — just like many of their Western counterparts.