Page last updated at 12:41 GMT, Monday, 15 June 2009 13:41 UK

Part 3: China's mass consumer culture

Part 1: Heading out into the real China Part 2: The mathematics of Chinese labour Part 3: China's mass consumer culture Part 4: Change from 60 years of Communism Part 5: The chill of China's economic crisis Part 7: The multiple realities of China Part 6: In Pictures: A trip through China's crisis

By Paul Mason
Reporting for BBC Newsnight and World News America

In the desert land of Yanchi County, the Great Wall and the narrow highway snake alongside each other for miles.

Desert Pumas Motorcycle Club
To be in the Desert Pumas you have to spend tens of thousands of dollars

The wall itself is a crumbling hump of yellow clay dotted with swallows' nests. The sky is vast, pewter and silent - until the Desert Pumas Motorcycle Club arrives.

Throb is the only word to describe the noise they make as they curve over the horizon in formation - each motorbike pulling a sidecar, each sidecar containing a pretty girl, each bike flying the club's red banner, each rider clad in US army fatigues.

Their bike of choice is the Chiang Jiang 750, a legendary 1957 military model with a top speed of 55mph (90 km/h).

The CJ750 used to be part of the iconography of Maoist communism, now it symbolises something else.

Emerging culture

To be in the Desert Pumas you have to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year, not just on the bike but on the Ray-Bans, top-end Nikon SLR cameras and authentic 1940s militaria that go with the subculture.

The Desert Pumas are part of a mass youth culture that has emerged in China over the past 10 years.

Chinese people have a different vision about consumption. The majority of Americans or British people judge their happiness through money. Most Chinese people value their personal happiness above money.
Zhang Chen-yuen

Zhang Chen-yuen, 30, is one of the few Pumas not clad entirely in US combat gear, preferring black leather jacket and red Pioneer scarf.

The desert air, black beer and bike-adrenaline prompt Zhang to produce a kind of instant Zen poetry:

"As human beings we have a strong desire for something to open our hearts," Zhang tells me, "a kind of power to pursue freedom, democracy, unity and happiness".

Do the police not worry about all this? If a motorbike gang turned up in the West dressed as the Red Army and riding in formation through a major city, the authorities would get worried.

"They do worry," says Zhang, "but we pursue our freedom and happiness within legal boundaries. We don't disturb other people's lives. We're behaving ourselves."

"Actually," Zhang lowers his voice and smiles shyly, "I am a cop."

Hopefully not a plainclothes detective monitoring Western journalists, I joke.

He drops his voice further: "Actually it's anti-terrorism."

Scrambling bikes

Today the Pumas have driven 60km out of their home base in Yinchuan, in China's "Wild West" for a meet with a rival club, the Helan Mountain Goats.


It's got nothing to do with being Western. Our main influence is World War II movies. That's why we wear the American uniforms. It's got nothing to do with being Western
Puma bikers

The venue is a desert ravine that was a military base at the time of Genghis Khan.

The Goats have been playing tag with the Pumas all along the highway, speeding past them on their Suzuki scrambling bikes, then dropping back to mingle in a flapping mass of red banners, day-glo stickers and camouflage gear.

On arrival the two camps set up tents and barbecues and, to the sizzle of lamb kebabs, break open cans of Chinese "dark-beer" that gives a passable imitation of Guinness.

While a few enthusiastic Pumas engage the Goats in a one-sided scrambling match up the 60-foot (18m) slope of the ravine, I talk to four stalwart bikers: Zhang the interior decorator, Zhang the petro-chemicals manager, Zhu who works for the government and yet another Zhang who owns a military surplus store.

If this were the US these well-off 30-something, small business-types would qualify as classic "middle-Americans".

Each of them is wearing the bald-eagle arm patch of the US 101st Airborne division.

So do they feel in any way "Western"?

"No!" they laugh. "It's got nothing to do with being Western. Our main influence is World War II movies. That's why we wear the American uniforms. It's got nothing to do with being Western."

Favourite films

After a few problems with translation it turns out that their all-time favourite is The Great Escape, closely followed by Band of Brothers and the Nicolas Cage bike classic, Black Rain.


Small businessmen like us are paying less tax, plus it's a lot easier to get a bank loan to start a business. On top of that the government is giving grants to farmers to encourage them to buy refrigerators and cars.
Militaria seller Zhang

Easy Rider they have seen but disapprove of. For the Pumas it has got to have fighting, uniforms and motorbikes, preferably with sidecars.

As for the abundant communist paraphernalia, national flags, Pioneer scarves and red stars, that is not simply nostalgia.

After some cajoling I persuade two of them to tell me they are members of the Chinese Communist Party. The other two add that they are strong supporters and point out that nearly all the bike club's members are former soldiers in the People's Liberation Army.

They are completely conscious that what they are doing is part of the emergence of a mass consumer culture in China.

Their city, a boomtown based on newly developed oil and power generation plants, has hardly felt the impact of the economic downturn.

Domestic market

Most of what they produce in Yinchuan goes to the domestic market, not the stricken export economy. Yet the crisis has given new urgency to the Chinese government's policy of encouraging consumer spending and the Pumas see their weekly desert camping expeditions as a kind of patriotic response.

"I spend nearly all my money on this," says Zhang the policeman. "In fact, these things burn money."

"But," he adds, "Chinese people have a different vision about consumption. The majority of Americans or British people judge their happiness through money. Most Chinese people value their personal happiness above money. With more money, of course, you can have a comfortable life, but what we value highest is contentment."

A whole bunch of Puma camp followers have now arrived, driving massive SUVs and dripping with high-class jewellery and personal electronics.

The Chinese middle class is judged to be two hundred million strong.

Though they have felt the effect of the economic crisis, the Chinese government's counter-crisis measures have been good for them too.

"Small businessmen like us are paying less tax," says Zhang the militaria seller, "plus it's a lot easier to get a bank loan to start a business. On top of that the government is giving grants to farmers to encourage them to buy refrigerators and cars. Yeah, we felt the downturn slightly, but since April it's bounced back and these things," he tugs the lapel of his GI combat tunic, "are selling well".

Paul Mason's journey across China will be broadcast in two parts on Newsnight on Tuesday 16 and Wednesday 17 June 2009 at 10.30BST on BBC Two, and then available to watch on the Newsnight website.




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