The thick mystery at the heart of China’s economic growth

version Over the past few decades, the small industrial city of Zibo has become best known for its petrochemical production. But in recent months, it has become the epicenter of a national barbecue craze and social media phenomenon China has never seen before. Tourists are pouring into cities in central Shandong, eating legendary kebabs and leaving after posting videos on Douyin, the local version of TikTok. The arena has been converted into a temporary dining room to accommodate the large crowd. To ease restrictions on meat and grill supplies, local banks have started offering low-interest loans specifically designed for businesses in the barbecue-related industry.

During the recent May Day holiday, one of the most important weeks of the year for domestic shopping and entertainment spending, the chemical hub was among the top tourist destinations alongside popular sites such as the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors. listed. A widely shared internet meme jokes that the last time so many people appeared in the city was during the Siege of Qi, a famous battle that took place in the area in 284 AD.B.C..

This frenzied activity in Zibo should help China bounce back from the dire zero-corona era. Analysts have highlighted consumption as a bright spot for China’s economy this year as the outlook for construction and manufacturing dimmed. Indeed, at first glance, the recent holiday activities look good. The resumption of tourism has been amazing. A record 274 million people traveled, up 19% from pre-pandemic levels. Just a few months ago, a short trip could have landed you in a quarantine camp for weeks.

Still other data show a more modest recovery, staying at levels last seen in 2019, before COVID-19, and not exceeding them. More people are traveling this year, but per capita spending is down more than 10% compared to 2019, according to the report. hsbc, Bank. As a result, domestic tourism revenue increased by only 0.7% compared to four years ago. “Chinese consumers are not back to normal,” warns the head of a wealth management firm. They focus on food and fun, not big ticket items like cars, he says. Auto sales in the first four months of 2023 fell 1.4% year-on-year.

Young people go out of their way to cut spending. Since the end of zero-corona, many tourists describe themselves as “special operations” travelers. This implies stopping at one place, spending as little time and money as possible, and moving on to the next. This is the same as elite troops passing through the location unnoticed. The activity has become a kind of sport where young people visit lists of popular places and post photos on social media to check them out. Zibo’s kebabs are he one of the most popular menus on the list.

But it’s not just young people’s thrift that is behind the slump in consumption statistics. Urban disposable income, at least by Chinese standards, grew little in the first three months of the year, rising only 2.7% in real terms compared to the same period last year, Raymond Yong said. apricot, Bank. One-fifth of young people are now unemployed, double the percentage since April 2019, he added.

Zibo Kebab is a perfect treat for travelers on a budget. It is heated with coals and eaten at a low table with a small stove. When the fat begins to drip, the meat is scraped into thin pancakes and dipped first in the garlic and chili paste and then in the salty mixture of sesame and peanuts. A local craft beer called Lulansha costs less than 3 yuan ($0.40) a bottle. Four people can eat and drink for hours within 350 yuan. Fashion is more than simple food. Anyone can sell it, said a barbecue specialist who has been running a shop in the city’s Linzhi district for several years. Tuanlu, as the locals call this dish. What people all over the country look for in Zibo is Shandong’s heartfelt hospitality.

But the cheap meal has sparked controversy among social commentators. Popular author Wu Xiaobo recently wrote that Internet viral trends spreading on the streets of cities like Zibo are evidence of a robust free-market economy at work in China. However, his article caused such a huge backlash that it was censored.

Some people are less optimistic. One widely circulated article was written by Professor Liu Yadong, arguing that young people are obsessed with online fads that carry little cultural value, a trend that is evidence of China’s social decline. there is Another article by think tank researcher Wang Mingyuan suggests that the barbecue hype is a sign of the end of a decades-long economic cycle. Smaller cities, where most of China’s population lives, lack more standard growth drivers. As the country’s population ages, the demographic dividend is declining. So local authorities need to jump on whatever the fad is for the internet. Wang asks how long the barbecue party will last.

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