The Strange Obsessions of the Chinese Bourgeoisie
Five items the Middle Kingdom’s growing middle classes are desperate to get their hands on.
The fetish object: “Green gold,” revered by Chinese royalty for millennia for its supposed healing powers.
The craze: Once practically worthless in small amounts, the highest-quality jade in China has literally now become — ounce for ounce — more valuable than gold.
Although there’s an ongoing debate over just how rare jade has become — critics say that the stone is actually far more abundant than traders claim — prices have increased tenfold over the last decade, with an ounce now costing $3,000. Further complicating matters, the finest stone is most commonly found in China’s western province of Xinjiang — a strife-ridden region where violent clashes between Muslim Uighur and Han Chinese killed at least 150 people in 2009.
Not surprisingly, other countries have begun to enter the Chinese market and cash in on their lucrative jade deposits. China’s decision to use inlaid jade in the 2008 Beijing Olympic medals was a windfall for jade miners in British Columbia, the world’s largest exporter of the stone.
The fetish object: Shark fin soup, an expensive Chinese delicacy that was traditionally only served at important family gatherings and other special occasions.
The craze: The growing popularity of the soup has led to an 83 percent decrease in certain shark populations, according to one report by a marine conservation group. Pleas by celebrities like basketball star Yao Ming to stop the killing of sharks have done little to quell the feeding frenzy.
The problem has now gone international, with allegations that illegal fin-cutting in Brazil has caused as many as 290,000 sharks to be killed and secretly sent to China for consumption since 2009. China has so far succeeded in defeating proposed U.N. treaties that would help protect sharks from extinction.
The fetish object: Wine, thought of as a chic, Western-influenced alternative to traditional high-proof rice wines and hard liquors.
The craze: The days of baijiu — the ubiquitous diesel-fuel-tasting Chinese hard liquor that is a key requirement of business deals — may be numbered. While per capita consumption is still low, China has now become one of the top consumers of wine in the world — an impressive feat considering the drink only became widely available in the past decade or so. Production of wine in the People’s Republic itself has also boomed, with reportedly more than 2,000 domestic brands available. Quantity, however, cannot substitute for quality: A leading critic has called the typical Chinese wine a “very poor quality Bordeaux Rouge.” No surprise, though, that the preferred type of wine in China is red.
The fetish object: Tiger parts, particularly the bones that are stewed into a wine that is said to boost virility and treat certain illnesses.
The craze: While the trade in tiger products has been technically illegal since 1993, the black market has ballooned into an industry involving millions of dollars. Prices for tiger parts, according to those investigating the trade, have never been higher with pelts going for about $20,000 and claws for about $1,000 each.
As the wild tiger population in China has dwindled toward zero, tiger farms — where the animals are meant to be protected from poachers — have sprung up throughout the country. But while the farms tout themselves as tourist attractions, they are widely thought to be fronts for bone traders. Chinese zoos — already not known as the most humane places in the world — have even gotten in on the act, with one recently closed after it allegedly allowed 11 tigers to die of starvation in order to sell their body parts.
The fetish object: Ginseng root, thought to cure a wide variety of ailments ranging from insomnia to fatigue — especially when it comes from the Badger State.
The craze: Although the Chinese also produce their own ginseng, most Asian buyers have come to prefer Wisconsin’s crop. While most Chinese citizens have never even heard of the Midwestern state that produces 95 percent of all ginseng grown in the United States, Wisconsin ginseng fetches the highest prices in Chinese pharmacies. The growing Chinese demand has been so high that farmers in one Wisconsin county made almost $70 million last year alone. This year, a drought followed by a wet summer, which brought disease, has only driven the prices higher. One pound of the root is currently worth $40 — a 67 percent increase over 2009.