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Monday, 12 November, 2001, 14:24 GMT
Chinese hope for consumer revolution
People shop for a new television at a Beijing department store
Shoppers are hoping for cheaper imported goods
By the BBC's Duncan Hewitt in Shanghai

In the newspapers and magazines on China's roadside bookstalls, there is plenty of debate about the challenges that membership of the World Trade Organistion will bring.

But if you ask people in a Shanghai shopping centre what joining the WTO means to them, you may get some unexpected answers.

Passers-by look at an imported Japanese car in Shanghai
The middle classes aspire to cars and credit cards
For China's growing middle-class, the prospect of cheaper imported goods as import tariffs fall is a major attraction.

"I think because of the WTO, many tax will be lower and so I can get some clothes and cosmetics, perfumes, much cheaper," says one woman.

Another woman hopes that it will bring down the price of cars.

Yet for the young generation in particular, joining the WTO means more than just cheaper cars. It is widely seen as an important symbolic step for China towards the international mainstream.

Optimism

Indeed the Chinese phrase for WTO accession literally means 'to enter the world'. For the young that offers new chances.


I think local people's concept about service will be greatly changed

Chinese shopper
"I would like to have an MBA course and I think after entering the WTO there will be much more multi-national MBA courses," says one women. "Good universities in America or other country will set their MBA course in China."

Another young woman, who works for a foreign accounting firm, hopes to get the change to go abroad.

"Currently it is not that easy to get a tourist visa to some countries," she says. "And, if you get one visa, to exchange foreign currency is quite a problem - you don't have international credit card.

"In maybe two or three years I know there is local branches of some foreign banks are already prepared to offer such kinds of service."

Change of culture

The woman's desire for an international credit card - not available from Chinese banks - reflects a general frustration among young people with the bureaucracy and restrictions left over from the old planned economy.

They hope that opening up the inefficient state-run banking system, and areas like retail and distribution, to foreign competition will make a big difference.

A Chinese couple give the OK signal as they walk past a WTO sign on a Beijing roadside
Many Chinese are proud of WTO membership
"I think local people's concept about service will be greatly changed," says another woman. "We don't know what service, this word really means.

"For example, in the United States, if you just want one service and you are willing to pay, okay you get it.

"But there's no such kind of service available here in China. I think the entry of many foreign companies will bring some fresh ideas about service into this country."

Reforms

For some there are hopes that such changes will even rub off on the government bureaucracy. After all, the authorities have promised to take a more hands-off approach to the economy as WTO membership takes hold.

"The most important thing is a change to the institution," one man told me. "The efficiency of the government and the mind of the people now are quite slow and not that modern.

"Five years later, I think, you know, under the influence of the WTO, the mind - I mean the institutions of the government - will change."

A fundamental change in the system may not be the Chinese Government's aim in joining the WTO but according to Chris Torrens of consultants Access Asia, some officials, particularly Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, believe the WTO is a weapon against the local protectionism which has delayed reforms up to now.

"Provincial governments especially don't seem to realise that if China is going to contribute to the world economy and to benefit from it as well, it has to give something, it has to open up," says Mr Torrens.

"And so Zhu Rongji wanted to force change, to show local governments and to show conservative leaders what can happen, what's going to happen.

"This is what WTO is going to bring. It's going to be a major shock for a lot of people in government and a lot of local administrations."

Many analysts believe that once the WTO changes take effect, China will be more open to the outside world than ever before. There will be more Hollywood movies in the cinemas and more foreign cafes.

That is good news for the urban elite but it could mean hard times for many workers in previously protected industries and agriculture. The ultimate question is whether China's society and its bureaucracy can cope with the strain.

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