by Richard Mellor*
“Beautiful faces have beautiful dreams,” says Wang Yaoyao, a contestant in the Miss Artificial Beauty contest held in China’s Hubei province. Ms Wang is special, a product of the new China, and a product of the free market. Ms Wang is a representative of the plastic surgery business that is sponsoring the contest. In a country of 1.3bn people, despite some 800 million of them living in poverty, global corporations and the budding Chinese bourgeois are wringing their hands at the potential for moneymaking.
Ms Wang is free you see; free to make herself beautiful, beautiful for Proctor and Gamble, Hollywood, and the men and women that will use her new found looks to sell soap or perfume. But for Ms Wang it is more than that, it is her ticket to the good life in the new China. The 21 year-old Wang, (not long an adult) received free plastic surgery on the condition that she promote the hospital that did the procedure. The plastic surgeon was generous, giving her, according to the Financial Times, “a nose job, double eyelids, a smaller chin, thicker lips and a tummy tuck”. Ahh! sweet commerce. Can the old regime be blamed for wanting to isolate itself from the west? After all, it was not really the west they were protecting themselves against, but bourgeois culture that turns everything in to a commodity.
Ms. Wang, an advertising executive tells the Financial Times, “Even if your smart and good at what you do, nobody will listen to what you have to say if you’re ugly. But if you’re beautiful, people want to be close to you immediately. Then you can talk to them and get your message across.” How sad is this? It is not confined to China of course. Women in the US who do not fit the standard of beauty determined by bourgeois culture and the men who dominate it face the same barriers.
Could you imagine the response were clinics here in the U.S. operating on American women, especially ones of European descent, making them look more Chinese. There’d be racist attacks on Asian Americans. The capitalist press would be whipping up nationalism and fear of being taken over by the “Yellow Peril”. Chinese, Japanese, South East Asian doctors offices would be firebombed. Asian teachers would be victimized in the schools.
But in China the beauty pageant is a moneymaker and they are flourishing. It is not just the plastic surgery business that sees dollar signs. The perfume industry, clothing, makeup, and let’s not forget the auto industry, all see a bright future in the disfigurement of human beings. After all gentlemen, you’ll need the right car, the right watch, the right suit to capture one of these beauties. The beauty pageant market, like any other, is facing saturation point according to the Times. But as the market ebbs and flows, the damage to millions of young girls, and the young men who expect this beauty of them will be devastating, both psychologically and physically, not just the surgery, but suicides and sickness as the reality sets in and women become slaves to this idea which fails to produce results, fails to make them “happy”.
Admittedly, there are millions of Chinese women, particularly in the rural areas, whose dreams are far more basic than Ms. Wang’s; food, shelter and a job. And I am not able to judge the impact of the phenomenon from afar, but the pace of change in Chinese society is considerable by most accounts. The economic potential is significant as global corporations like P&G, Volvo, Clark’s shoes and Malaysia Airlines (religious condemnation of capitalism doesn’t seem to be an obstacle here) invest in these pageants. In 2003, Chinese women bought $9bn worth of beauty products and this is only the tip of the iceberg from global capitalism’s point of view. The more they convince women they are ugly and that this is why they cannot achieve success, the greater the investment potential.
Like all aspects of the roaring Chinese economy it is quite likely this bourgeois consciousness and the economic basis for it will be cut across by the increasing frustration of the Chinese masses. Incidents of social unrest in China have increased 600% over the last decade. Massive wealth alongside extreme poverty does not go unnoticed and each small release of the Stalinist bureaucracy’s boot off the necks of the Chinese workers increases their confidence. There is no doubt that there is no reversal for the Chinese bureaucracy, not without major social upheaval. The capitalist road has been traveled too far. But the future is unsure. The massive reserves held by China may give a certain leeway to the bureaucracy, maybe they can make some considerable concessions in the face of an increasingly restless population; no one can be sure what the future holds except that it is a volatile situation.
Despite the propaganda of the western press, bourgeois individualism and selfishness cannot exist alone in the consciousness of the Chinese workers. In the last analysis, consciousness has a material base and in the case of China, it has had 50 years without the market. But it has had its effect. “When I ask my male students what they dream of, they say owning a car and being with a beautiful woman. They never used to talk like that.” One university professor tells the Times. That’s progress. (1)
As I read this article that spurred me to write this commentary, I was reminded of Marx and Engels’ comments on the global nature of the market. I am adding them as a reminder of their genius.
“The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.
The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country........ In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.
The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.
You can’t beat that.
Karl Marx/Frederich Engel’s The Communist Manifesto 1848
(1) The article from which these details were taken is, The China Doll Revolution
Financial Times 11-05-05 FT Weekend Section
* I wrote this in December 2005