Fast Food in China: Modernization Through Western Fast Food Chains

The Western fast food industry in China, nonexistent just a few decades ago, has become an industry large enough to have an impact on the daily lives of many Chinese people. This essay links China’s burgeoning fast food industry to various changing aspects of Chinese society, including shifting eating habits as well as how Chinese people view both Western culture and China itself as a modernizing country. Though Western dominance of the fast food industry may appear imperialistic, Western companies interact with Chinese culture and interests in a way that makes the fast food more a product of China rather than the West.

Though traditional Chinese convenience foods have existed for decades, it was not until after China opened its borders that well-known Western fast food chains began to penetrate the Chinese market. On November 2, 1982, the first KFC opened in Beijing to a 50-meter long line of customers. First day sales surpassed company expectations, with sales reaching 2,200 buckets of chicken sold by the day’s end. Though KFC foods were not affordable to most Chinese at the time, KFC was such an attraction that many still flocked to the store despite the prices. The success of this first store led to KFC’s expansion to other major cities in China. (China Daily 2008)

Three years after KFC first entered the market, the first McDonalds opened in the busiest area of Shenzhen, a major city in Southern China. In the same year, Pizza Hut, another chain belonging to the parent company of KFC, Yum Brands, opened its first store in Beijing. All were considered too expensive for the average Chinese person to eat at regularly, and so many patrons were foreigners living in China. However, the expensive price might have partly worked in the fast food chains’ favor. Western fast food was considered something of a luxury at the time and one that was in high demand. It was not unusual for the average Chinese person to make an event of eating in a Western fast food establishment; some would even hold wedding banquets in fast food stores. (China Daily 2008) This increased the image of Western fast food as being something special and desirable.

In recent years, Western fast food restaurants are a common sight in the city streets of China. In 2005, KFC had 1,200 locations in mainland China and is currently China’s largest Western fast food chain. In comparison, there were over 5,000 KFC locations in the US. At the time, KFC was growing at a rate of over 200 new locations opened per year, so it is very likely that there are around 2,000 KFC locations in China today. McDonalds placed second with more than 600 locations in the same year, and was targeting for a growth rate of around 100 locations per year. (The Washington Times 2005) As more and more Chinese enter the middle class, Western fast food is more affordable and is becoming accepted as a part of everyday life.

Just as Chinese consumers are adapting to Western foods, Western fast food chains are in turn modified from their US counterparts to better fit Chinese tastes. Food items at KFC, which include foods that do not appear on US menus, such as nuggets and sandwiches, are all flavored spicy or mild in order to accommodate Chinese people’s affinity for spicy foods. (Hatfield and Marr 2004) At McDonalds, items such as red bean ice cream and curry beef triangles are sold alongside more familiar foods such as Big Macs. (Goodman 2004, 2) Western fast food chains are not simply presenting foreign foods to the Chinese market. Rather, Western chains integrate aspects of Chinese foods into traditional Western fast food to create something that is not simply a product of the US. Western fast food thus appeals to Chinese customers because the food is not so alien as to distance the Chinese public.

Western companies have used clever marketing campaigns involving Chinese pop culture and language to increase their appeal amongst Chinese consumers. McDonalds uses Chinese NBA basketball player Yao Ming as a sponsor, who represents Chinese influence on US pop culture, and conversely, US influence on Chinese pop culture. (Goodman 2004, 1) Moreover, when the Coca-Cola company converted its product name to Chinese characters, it cleverly transcribed the name as Ke Kou Ke Le, which roughly translates to “really tasty, really fun.” (Rosenthal 2004) This furthers the argument that Western companies are not replicating the same strategies and products used in the US, but are creating a more unique Chinese product under a global brand.

However, the differences between Western chains and comparable Chinese restaurants highlight some reasons why Western chains dominate the Chinese fast food industry. Though Chinese tastes have modified Western fast food, Chinese still consider the food to be new and different. Though Western fast food is more affordable now in comparison to the 1980’s, it is revealing that Chinese consumers choose to pay $2.50 for large French fries instead of paying 25 cents for eight fried pork buns that are just as easily accessible. As was said by a young female customer of KFC, “Chinese food, that's all I ever ate when I was growing up… I want something different.” (Goodman 2004, 2) Similar to how ethnic foods are viewed in the US, Western fast food offers an alternative to the foods that Chinese consumers have grown used to.

Western fast food chains not only sell Western food, but sell a dining experience that did not previously exist in China. In contrast to Pizza Huts in the US, which mainly deliver pizzas to customers, Pizza Hut in China offers a casual dining experience. Pizza Huts are said to be favored by Chinese customers for its comparably friendlier service and cleaner setting in comparison to local Chinese restaurants. (China Daily 2008) Cleanliness is an important aspect of the appeal of Western chains, particularly in the cities, as Beijing has been described as one of the most “hygienically challenged cities in the world.” (Goodman 2004, 1) This is particularly significant for parents, as the cleanliness of a restaurant will most likely affect whether the parent will want to feed their children there. In addition, the uniformity of Western fast food branches makes dining more convenient for Chinese consumers, as they know what to expect no matter what location the customer is eating at. In comparison, Chinese restaurants do not have standardized menus and offer different foods depending on the location. One McDonalds customer explains, “If you go to one of these traditional Chinese restaurants, there are big differences between one and another, and you have to know where you are and what to order… Here, there's a standard. A familiar taste. You always know what to expect.” (Goodman 2004, 2) Though Chinese restaurants may have more variety, this variety is less convenient for consumers. Western chains offer an attractive, convenient dining setting that is appropriate for the whole family, which furthers the appeal of Western chains and exacerbates the unfriendly settings of local Chinese restaurants.

Furthermore, the effective management of Western chains is another aspect lacking in local restaurants that Chinese consumers have come to appreciate. One case that best demonstrates this idea centers on the Chinese-based fast food chain Ronghua Chicken. Launched in 1991, Ronghua Chicken set itself up to be a competitor of KFC and even adopted the slogan, “Wherever there is KFC, there is Ronghua.” Ronghua advertised itself as a fried chicken fast food chain, but offered more traditional Chinese food in comparison to KFC and also offered cheaper prices. Though Ronghua succeeded during its first few years and expanded to become a nationwide chain, by 2000, the president was forced to close all Ronghua branches in Beijing due to poor sales. The president claimed the company suffered because it lacked “the kind of well-developed system that KFC possesses which oversees every detail of the business, from making the product, to service, to site, to staff training and management.” (China Daily 2008) Consumers value this consistency, as inconsistent chains such as Ronghua would vary in the quality of the food depending on the branch.
Though Chinese entrepreneurs have created various copycat fast food restaurants, only a handful have succeeded in the long term largely due to management problems. Chinese businessmen are now adopting the model of Western chains, which includes centralizing management, standardizing the menus, and training workers more intensely. An example of one such company is California Beef Noodle King, which exclusively serves traditional Chinese food such as wonton and dumplings. However, unlike many other traditional Chinese food chains, California Beef Noodle King offers a sanitary eating environment. The prices are also considerably cheaper than that of Western chains. California Beef Noodle King is one of the most popular non-Western fast food chains in China and boasted 100 locations nationwide in 2004. (Hatfield and Marr 2004) Though this chain serves only traditional Chinese food, management took various successful aspects of the Western chains and applied them to their own chain. That the owner is a Chinese man from California might in part explain his quick adaptability of Western practices in comparison to the owners and presidents of other, less successful Chinese-borne food chains.

With the Chinese imitating Western restaurants and business models, it may appear as though Western fast food chains are “Westernizing” China. However, it can be argued that any Westernization that is occurring in China is not necessarily caused by the presence and popularity of Western companies. Instead, the popularity of Western products is a reflection of China’s changing, more modern society. As the Chinese economy becomes more capitalist and consumerist, it seems natural that Chinese people will become more attracted to products that reflect their new, improved way of living. When asked why she eats fast food, a young Chinese worker responded, “Why not? It's simple and fast, suited to my lifestyle.” Likewise, a successful, middle-aged businessman stated, “My daughter, who's 16, wants to go to the U.S…. but for me there's no point. I have basically the same life here.” (Rosenthal 2004) The urban middle class of modern China are more and more resembling middle class America. Chinese consumers are thus beginning to think of Western fast food and products as items that best suit their own lifestyle and not as foreign, Western creations.

This consumer-driven lifestyle has not come without costs to the Chinese population. It is a growing concern within the Chinese media that the population is becoming progressively more overweight. This increase in weight correlates with increased intake of Western food, and so many lay blame on Western foods, particularly fast food, for China’s supposed obesity epidemic. Other factors, such as television and increased use of automobiles, have also been linked to weight gain in China. (Cheng 2004) It was stated earlier that middle-class China resembles middle-class America, but this resemblance includes increased sedentary work along with high calorie diets. These two factors are unarguably a result of the “simple and fast” lifestyles that many middle-class Chinese have now adopted. Moreover, a survey conducted on December 2004 shows that 41% of respondents in mainland China eat at a fast food restaurant at least once a week, in comparison to 35% in the US. Eating out on a regular basis takes away from healthier alternatives, such as home cooked meals, and likely contributes to mass weight gain.

Western fast food chains serve food that is known for being unhealthy, but the problem extends farther than fast food itself. Since the introduction of Western chains, Chinese eating habits have begun to progressively change. Since the 1980’s, Chinese people have eaten less vegetables and more meat in their overall diet. Specifically, the China National Nutrition and Health Survey uncovered that, between 1982 and 2002, the intake of leafy vegetables and fruits dropped from 276.2g to 45g. In comparison, the intake of meat has doubled within the same period of time. In some rural areas, meat intake has tripled. Dairy and egg products have also increased more than threefold. (Zhang Xiaoyong 2008, 40) This correlation between shifting eating habits and the introduction of Western fast food is not coincidental. The growing cheese industry in China is a testament to the influence fast food has over Chinese tastes. Prior to 1982, the market for cheese in China was non-existent, as Chinese people did not like the taste and the food-distribution system in place at the time was not suited for a product with a short shelf life. However, because cheese is used in pizzas, hamburgers, and other fast foods, the cheese industry is steadily growing. Cheese is now stocked in select grocery stores across China. (Buckman 2003) This information explains the threefold increase of dairy intake, and the increased consumption of meat is likely linked to fast food as well.

The demographic of people most affected by weight gain adds further evidence to the belief that rising obesity is linked to modernization and Western fast food. One study found that the consumers with the highest Body Mass Index (BMI) were richer, younger, and more highly educated than other consumer groups, and that these people tended to live in urban settings. Furthermore, these people either had diets that were high in meats, fruits, and milk, or consumed many Western-oriented foods such as cake and fruit juice. (Zhang Xiaoyong 2008, 43, 46) The demography of people with the highest BMI appears to describe the newly affluent class of Chinese consumers; these successful, young Chinese adults tend to be more educated than previous generations and also tend to cluster in urban dwellings. This group has a high chance of being swept up in the new Westernized lifestyle that their affluence can afford them. That they eat Western-oriented foods and have high meat intake all increases the likeliness that they eat Western fast foods and that their daily eating habits are affected by it.

Interestingly, the Chinese are also currently undergoing a health craze, just as the US is. One survey recorded that 80% of respondents reported that they exercised regularly and 75% listed health as their primary concern. Likewise, slimming potions and appetite suppressants have begun appearing on the market. (Goodman 2004, 2) This health craze appears to be a backlash to the population’s overall growth in weight gain. Whereas just a few decades ago, Chinese people were more concerned with not having enough food to eat, many Chinese today are concerned with having too much to eat. This shift is directly linked to modernization and consumerism, and is reflected in the growing popularity of Western fast foods.

It is argued that modernization policies might also be the cause of China’s rising child obesity. Because of the one-child policy, wealthier Chinese are possibly spoiling the one child in the family. Extensive Chinese families further contribute to the problem:

“There is a saying in China: ‘2-4-8 (pronounced as ‘er’ ‘si’ and ‘ba’, respectively), you get fat.’ With only one child in the family, the doting parents (2 in number), grandparents (4 in number), and great grandparents (8 in number) pamper their only child by overfeeding the ‘little emperor.’”

Food that would originally be divided amongst siblings are now enjoyed by one child, and especially so if the child is a favored male. (Cheng and Ji 2008, 6) This is particularly true of relatives of previous generations who believe that chubbier people are healthier-looking than skinny people, an aesthetic preference that is observable across many countries amongst people who live or have lived in times of mass poverty. Because of this preference, it seems likely that older relatives would overfeed children. Thus, Western fast food appears to be strongly interrelated with rising weight gain amongst Chinese consumers. Though the relationship between the two is not so simple that one can claim Western fast food is the sole cause of obesity, the two are inextricably linked. In order to curb this rate of weight gain, Chinese consumers need to become more aware of the consequences of their excessive consumerism and possible negative effects it can have both on themselves and Chinese society as a whole.

Western fast food chains have had an impact on many different aspects of Chinese modern-day society. Because Western companies and products have had so much influence, it is useful to ask whether the effect these companies have had on China can be labeled as either Westernization or modernization. This question has been asked on a more general scale in Huntington’s “A Universal Civilization? Modernization and Westernization.” Huntington describes modernization as a process that involves “industrialization, urbanization, increasing levels of literacy, education, wealth, and social mobilization, and more complex and diversified occupational structures.” (Huntington 1996, 21) Westernization, on the other hand, describes a process more akin to cultural imperialism: to Westernize is specifically to adopt the culture of the US and of Western European countries. Huntington then describes three different strategies that countries have adopted when faced with the threat of the West: rejectionism, Kemalism, and reformism. (Huntington 1996, 25-27) In many ways, China has adopted all three strategies in different phases of recent history. First, the Chinese government adopted rejectionism and closed off the country from the rest of the world, but particularly from Western influence. Though this application is not entirely accurate, certain aspects of Kemalism were put into effect throughout the Cultural Revolution, which was a systematic and traumatic attempt to erase Chinese culture and kin relationships from the daily lives of the people. The recent history of China must be understood in order to understand why China opened up and adopted its current strategy of reformism, or the process of combining modernization with the central values, traditions, and institutions of Chinese culture.

Though it could be argued that the Chinese are attempting to leave behind the tragedies of the past by adopting a new Westernized culture, it does not appear as if Chinese consumers nor Western companies have any desire to replace Chinese culture with Western culture. On the contrary, as has been previously discussed, Western companies have tried to integrate Chinese food into the menus in order to become more marketable. Western fast food chains are motivated by profit; that the Chinese middle class has begun to resemble the middle class of the US has more to do with modernization and consumerism rather than cultural imperialism.

The changes occurring in China today are the effects of decisions the Chinese have made for themselves. By opening the country, the Chinese government made clear that they wished for globalization to occur for the benefit of their country. By buying Western products, Chinese consumers are not renouncing their cultural identity, and likewise, Western companies are not acting as cultural imperialists. Rather, Western and Chinese culture are interacting in a way that is helping China grow into the modern, globalized country that the Chinese people wish for it to become.


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