YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Anxiety Drives Chinese Fixation on Frugality

Financial insecurity and long-term goals compel many in the growing middle class to save. That enables Americans to overspend.

November 09, 2005|Don Lee | Times Staff Writer

SHANGHAI — Zhuo Yunbao and Lan Nan buy their clothes at inexpensive stores in underground malls and neighborhood outlets. They rarely eat out. Their 8-year-old son's tiny room is bare of toys.

It's not that the Shanghai family is poor. Far from it. By Chinese standards, they are part of the growing middle class, between them grossing around 7,000 yuan a month -- about $860. But instead of spending their way to a higher standard of living, the Zhuos are saving nearly half their income. They say they have little choice.

Like most Chinese, the Zhuos are racked with financial insecurities. Their health insurance is full of holes. The price of most homes here is beyond their reach. School tuition, once paid for by the state, is rising. And the couple, both 34, worry about who will take care of them when they are old.

"I feel very tired when I think about this," Lan Nan says. "It seems we can only save ... and will always save this way."

The Zhuos illustrate why the Chinese may be the most prodigious savers in the world. China's economic reforms have vastly improved living standards, but the last two decades also have seen a dismantling of the socialist "iron rice bowl" that provided basic health and welfare from cradle to grave. The result is that many Chinese today feel more insecure about their future than their parents' generation did.

Chinese families are saving about half of their income. Analysts believe that has contributed to a "global savings glut" that has helped push down interest rates and, in the U.S., fuel excessive spending. U.S. households have been spending more than they have been earning in recent months. That contrasts with an average savings rate -- or savings as a percentage of income -- of 8% from 1950 to 2000.

For China, high savings have pumped up investment at home and supported export industries. But the country's widening trade surplus has triggered complaints from the United States. In a visit to Beijing last month, Treasury Secretary John W. Snow suggested that the Chinese save less and spend more -- on U.S.-made goods to help ease America's big account deficit.

But most experts expect China's savings rate to stay high for years to come because of the need to prepare for a large dependent elderly population. The median age of China's population has jumped to 32.6 from 22.1 in 1980, says Andy Xie, an economist at Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong, mainly because of the nation's one-child policy.

The trend is pronounced in cities such as Shanghai, where gleaming skyscrapers and high-end boutiques belie the frugal lifestyles of many residents.

The Zhuos are typical. The couple met at a metallurgical technical college in Shanghai. They graduated together, and today both have desk jobs, he at a state-owned educational services company and she at a private logistics firm.

Their combined monthly income puts them above average for wage earners in this city of 17.4 million residents. A fifth of their paychecks goes to taxes and their portion of the costs for health insurance.

Zhuo and Lan live with his parents in a 700-square-foot dwelling on the fifth floor of an old, elevator-less building, one of 87 in a complex in northeast Shanghai. The unit was given to Zhuo's mother, Xia Xiuying, by her employer about 25 years ago. Although she doesn't legally own it, Xia has long-term lease rights to it and doesn't pay rent.

"We stay here, so it's ours," says Xia, 74, flashing a big, toothless smile as her husband, 76-year-old Zhuo Qingqui, gazes at a 15-inch TV in the living room.

Zhuo and Lan skimp in every way. Five days a week, Zhuo takes the 7 a.m. bus for a quarter, rides standing up for an hour, then transfers at People's Square station, where he squeezes into a subway train for 50 cents. He arrives at work at 8:30, carrying a sack lunch made the night before by their part-time housekeeper, whom they pay $45 a month. He comes home at 7.

Apart from groceries, utilities and $20 monthly premiums for $25,000 life-insurance policies for each of them, the Zhuos have few other expenses. On weekends, they walk to a park nearby and play badminton. The family seldom travels very far for vacation.

"We're a little bit tight about our spending," Zhuo says unapologetically.

China, like other nations in East Asia, has a long tradition of thrift. Analysts say it may be linked to Confucian values that encourage thrift and production rather than consumption. China's propensity to save also reflects its agrarian society, where people face more risks of fluctuating incomes and their long work hours leave them with little leisure time to consume.

The booming economy has created substantial wealth for a growing number of Chinese, and many are spending heartily. Sales of cars, computers and cellphones are taking off. Still, consumption isn't rising as fast as incomes or economic growth.

Los Angeles Times Articles