双十一, Double Eleven, more than just a shopping festival?

李佳琦, Li Jiaqi, ‘the lipstick king’, a very successful and sometimes controversial live-streaming celebrity.

Double Eleven!

One of the most important events of the year for many Chinese people is taking place right now in November. It’s called Double Eleven and it’s the biggest shopping festival in the world. It’s a bit like Boxing Day and the January sales in the UK but on steroids. And curiously it takes place at almost the same time as the western shopping festival called ‘Black Friday’, which this year is on November 24th.

In this article I’ll share information about the Double Eleven phenomenon and some thoughts about what it means for the Chinese people.

What is Double Eleven?

Double 11 only came into existence in 2009. Really it would be better to describe it as a festival of e-commerce. The person behind Double 11 is Zhang Yong, the founder of an online retail giant called Tmall. He was looking for ways to boost the Tmall brand and hit on the idea of an on-line shopping event.

We need some background on Tmall. Tmall operates as an on-line platform for branded products, both domestic and international. By 2020 Tmall had grown to become the largest authorised mobile and online trading platform for brands and retailers in the world. We can understand Tmall as an online digital market place where retailers can set up an electronic market stall, without the costs of a physical infrastructure.

Double Eleven is not just about consumerism.

From an economic point of view Double Eleven is also about innovation. It offers a platform not only for new products but also for new services. E-commerce platforms encourage a whole economic eco-system of growth. Many of the businesses can be categorised as small or even micro enterprises. An important aspect of Double Eleven is the way it supports the development of finance, logistics, technology and even training for the skills of e-commerce.

I think it’s also important to understand the role of e-commerce for what in China is called ‘小康’, xiaokang, or making sure there is a level of moderate prosperity across the whole society, without ‘left behind’ areas of inequality. The on-line market places can be joined from anywhere in the country, bringing benefits to enterprises and consumers who live outside of the highly developed urban centres. A new platform called Pinduoduo, believes that every year it is seeing 167 per-cent growth in China’s much smaller fourth and fifth tier cities.

Seen in this way Double 11 begins to have cultural as well as economic significance. It is a critical part of opening up the Chinese economy to international producers. In 2022 Double 11 brought more than 2,600 overseas brands to the attention of Chinese consumers. Products and services were on sale from 79 countries and regions of the world. We should understand this in relation to the Belt and Road Initiative which is improving connectivity to China from across the world. Retailers from any part of the globe can now open doors to trade in China through the Double Eleven platform.

The phenomenon of Live-Streaming

The second cultural phenomenon that is markedly different from traditional patterns of shopping in the west is the emergence of live streaming. Again comparison with a physical market can be made. If you’ve ever been to a marketplace you will have had your attention caught by the show-woman or showman, attracting you not only by the quality of their wares, but the quality of their entertainment.

Live-streaming at Double Eleven is the commercial equivalent of the Olympic Games for the celebrities of this skill. In 2022 live-streamers generated more than 15 billion US dollars of sales. At the peak of the 2022 , 583,000 orders were being placed every second. Live-streaming brings opportunities for new entrepreneurs from across China, especially the still developing economies of the rural west and south-west. One of the most lucrative and valued corners of the live-streaming market is held by farmers and agricultural workers who can use the platform to sell organic produce and cultural products such as textiles directly to the doors of city dwellers.

Li Jiaqi, the live-streamer pictured above, sold so many products on line that he earned the nick-name ‘the lipstick king’. Then he notoriously risked his reputation and market share when he concluded an on-line argument with a customer by implying she was too lazy to earn the money to buy his products. The strength of on-line opinion in China can be seen in the fact that he has since apologised for his lack of values, “I should never forget where I come from and shouldn’t lose myself.” Social media in the West is not particularly known as an arena for public apologies.

Shopping and Culture

While we may have all kinds of reservations about consumerism, that shouldn’t blind us to the cultural importance of shopping. If we read Michael Woods’ ‘The Story of China’ he paints vivid pictures of places like 12th century Kaifeng where shopping was the engine of a renaissance of art, culture and life-styles. In his wonderful social history ‘Empire of Things’, Frank Trentmann (2017) opens with an account of shopping fashions from 1808 written by the Chinese poet Lin Sumen. Part of this different perspective is to shift the focus away from the seller to the buyer. As Trentmann puts it ‘it was the values these societies attached to things that set them apart’.

How to join the Double Eleven users community

My students are of course expert users of Double Eleven. They explained to me that a co-operative sub-culture has developed around the event. The volume of information about potential on-line bargains is simply far too much for any one person to manage. And so they work together almost like a team of hunters to guide each other to catch what they need.

They taught me two essential internet catch phrases for this activity. The first is ‘种草’ or ‘zhongcao’ which literally means ‘to plant grass’. However it is internet slang for recommending a bargain to a friend. I guess in English we’d say planting the seed of buying a product. And then there is its equally vivid opposite, which is ‘拔草’ or ‘bacao’ which means ‘to pull up weeds’. If someone tells you this then it’s a signal that you should avoid this product or seller.

Things like this go beyond linguistic ingenuity. The slang binds you into a group of knowledgeable consumers, clubbing together to make Double Eleven work on your terms.

It’s estimated that by 2025 the digital economy could be contributing 12 trillion dollars per year, which is 55% of China’s economy, so we’d be foolish to ignore its economic value. However we should also be wise to the ways in which Chinese citizens make use of shopping events like these to develop their own sense of value and community.

As one of my students said, ‘ Everyone will be immersed in pleasure on November 11th, that’s why the Chinese like this day very much, because a joyful day is what we need most. Double Eleven not only meets our material needs, but it also meets our spiritual needs, for Chinese, this cheerful day can also be seen as a festival, Double Eleven has taken root in our hearts!’

清明上河圖, Qīngmíng Shànghé Tú, ‘Along the River During the Qingming Festival’,artist Zhang Zeduan (張擇端, 1085–1145),a celebration of Song Dynasty shopping culture.

A Belt and Road Initiative White paper for Green Development

Belt and Road Railway track in Kenya, July 28, 2022.

If in Britain we think about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) at all, we probably think of it as a policy China is using to increase trade and improve its economy. Well we certainly can’t fault that – it’s exactly what British politicians told us would happen with Brexit!

However as a forthcoming White Paper called ‘A Global Community of Shared Future: China’s Proposals and Actions’ explains, China sees the BRI as much more than a set of trade routes. Just as the ancient Silk Roads carried ideas and technologies between Asia and Europe, so the BRI equivalents are about a much wider regeneration.

One essential component of the strategy is a commitment to the transition to a sustainable future. China has always been a firm supporter of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals which call on the whole world to make progress on 17 actions which will mitigate the threats of the climate emergency tipping points. China and her partners in the BRI are putting goals such as ‘Clean Energy’, ‘Clean Water and Sanitation’ and ‘Sustainable Communities’ into action through infrastructure projects.

China has already made significant progress towards sustainability domestically.  In the past 10 years, China has managed to fuel an average annual economic growth of 6 percent, with an average annual energy consumption growth of 3 percent. China’s carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP dropped by around 35 percent, which is equivalent to cutting about 3.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. In 2022, the installed capacity for renewable energy in China reached 1.2 billion kilowatts, overtaking that for coal-fired power for the first time.

Now let’s look at a few of the green projects making a difference to the global climate situation outside of China.

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Chinese company, the Power Corporation of China, has just completed construction of a major wind-power project.  The four wind farms will generate a combined total of 117.5 megawatts of electricity.  Moreover the development is a showcase for wind turbine technology which will be used by the UAE government to initiate further sustainable solutions. The UAE government has committed to a 31% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and projects like this will make a significant contribution to achieving this target.

In Pakistan, China has partnered in the construction of the Karot hydro-power project.With an annual generating capacity of 3.2 billion kilowatt-hours of clean electricity, the project is expected to save about 1.4 million tonnes of standard coal and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 3.5 million tonnes each year, according to Pakistani officials.

In Argentina Chinese partnership has been instrumental in the completion of the Nestor Kirchner-Jorge Cepernic Hydroelectric Power Plant.  Work on this began in 2013, with the aim of improving the country’s energy infrastructure and satisfying the electricity needs of more than one million families. Once the project is completed, the installed power capacity in Argentina will grow by approximately 6.5 percent.

In Kazakhstan a Chinese-funded wind farm is being installed which contains 30 generating units with a generation capacity of 150 megawatts.  The first phase was connected to the grid at the end of December last year. Once fully completed, it is expected to provide about 600 million kilowatt-hours of clean electricity to the local grid every year, equivalent to saving 190,000 tonnes of standard coal and reducing 480,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.

In Uganda there is the Karuma Hydro Power Plant which is in its final stage of construction, and will be the largest power-generating installation in the east African country when completed with a capacity of 600,000 kilowatts. The plant is 85 percent financed by the Export-Import Bank of China, and 15 percent financed by the Ugandan government. It is expected to generate 4 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually and provide over $200 million in revenue to local government, close to 1 percent of Uganda’s current GDP.

Sustainability on the Chinese model is about far more than just building infrastructure.  While travelling in Gansu Province on a local train, I once met a large party of engineers from Jamaica.  Amazed to find them in such a remote area of China I got talking to them.  It turned out a Chinese company had purchased their engineering business in Jamaica and was in the process of updating the whole enterprise around sustainable technology and design.  While the plant was being renovated, the whole workforce had been brought to China to study advanced engineering ideas, including sustainability.  They had been given jobs for life if they wanted to be part of the modernisation project. China understands that the long term contribution of projects such as these depends on creating supportive infrastructures around them through the employment and education of a local workforce.

The Belt and Road Initiative is extending lessons learned in China about how social stability and economic development can be fostered through policies aimed at securing common prosperity.  Under BRI green thinking this common prosperity includes the protection of natural environments and the security of eco-systems under environmental protection.


From China, ketchup for your chips!

The China~Europe railway,
a bridge for trade and cultural understanding

These days of course we are increasingly used to the idea of buying manufactured goods from China. But here’s an astonishing fact that will change the way you see the interdependence between China and the world. Fully one quarter of the tomato ketchup now consumed in the world is grown and produced in China – yes, one in every four bottles!

What are the facts behind this remarkable story?

The first part of the puzzle is that the growing of tomatoes has become a significant part of Chinese agriculture. In 2021 China processed 4.8 million tonnes of tomatoes, 12% of the global volume. In 2021 it is estimated that altogether about 38.9 million tons of tomatoes were grown in China.

One of the main tomato growing regions in China is western Xinjiang Province, which has always been famous for the quality of its fruit and vegetables. The climate and soil quality in Xinjiang contribute to the exceptional flavour of its tomatoes. In fact a total of nearly 80% of all China’s tomatoes are grown in Xinjiang and September is the traditional time for tomato harvesting.

This fact is all the more remarkable when we remember that tomatoes are not indigenous to China. In fact all tomatoes owe their origins to a plant growing in Central and South America. One of the Chinese names for the tomato ‘xihongshi’ literally means the ‘red, western fruit’. Tomatoes were probably introduced into China in the Ming Dynasty, in the late 16 or early 17th centuries.

In fact until the early 20th century tomatoes played a very small role in Chinese cuisine. The breakthrough for the humble tomato came with the development in the 1930’s of 西红柿炒鸡蛋 – xihong-shi chao-jidan’ – scrambled egg and tomato , which is now a staple all over China. It’s simple and deceptively delicious.

The second fact is the dramatic reduction in transportation times for tomatoes and tomato products from China to Europe. A critical part of the Belt and Road project for economic development around China, has been investment in the China-Europe railway. In the decade that Britain failed to complete HS2, 10,694 kilometres of track now connect Chengdu in China to Milan in Italy. On the way it connects 92 cities in 21 countries. The transportation time for products by sea between Europe and China used to be 25 days. The railway has cut this to something between 12 and 15 days.

This connectivity has revolutionised the flow of tomato sauces and pastes from China to the restaurants and dining tables of Britain and Europe. On its way west the intercontinental railway passes through Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang, transforming it into an economically dynamic hub between China, Central Asia and Europe and returning it to the status and wealth it enjoyed in the historical Silk Road era.

One more fact for you to consider the next time you reach for a bottle of tomato ketchup. Have you ever thought what an unusual word ‘ketchup’ itself is. That’s because the origins of both the name and the product are in Asia. The word can be traced back to its use in the Malay language and a fish sauce called ‘kichap’, which in itself may have been influenced by a Chinese product called ‘koechiap’, or fish brine.

Of course trade between south-east Asia and Europe developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and ‘ketchup’ was just one of the many new tastes and flavours introduced to brighten up the limited western palate. In 1711 we find a book called ‘An Account of Trade in India’ which states ‘Soy comes in Tubs from Jappan, and the best Ketchup from Tonqueen [Vietnam]; yet goods of both sorts, are made and sold very cheap in China.’

So as you squeeze a bottle of tomato ketchup to bring some flavour to your plate of chips remember that either literally or etymologically you’re adding the flavour of Asia to your meal!