Put two economists in a room and ask them to tell us where the world economy is heading, and they'll eventually start talking about China. In all likelihood, they'll argue about if and when this country's 1.3 billion people will start buying enough stuff to pull the rest of the planet away from the precipice.
With the euro zone teetering on the verge of collapse, and growth sluggish in the United States since the 2008 financial crisis, the still-impressive growth figures posted by the Middle Kingdom are often held up as the lonely cause for optimism. But can China really save the world?
There are lots of predictions out there, only a few of which match the Chinese economy I see haphazardly unfolding around me. What I see is billions of dollars in loans being poured into construction projects that create giant malls and office towers, contributing to a jagged Beijing skyline that was largely flat just a few decades ago (as well as plenty of flashy cars on the streets).
Those projects create jobs and money, no question. Millions of migrants from around China work in the construction sites, sending much of their meager-but-improving pay back to their families in China's still-impoverished rural areas.
But sustained consumer demand? It's harder to see. I live in the Sanlitun neighbourhood of East Beijing, one of the trendier shopping districts in the city. Since I've arrived I've seen four sprawling new malls open up, and another one shut down for lack of traffic.
Within a short walk of my apartment, you can buy everything from Levi's jeans and Hello Kitty accessories to Versace gowns and Chow Tai Fook jewelry. (There's a wildly popular Apple store in the area too, as well as a market renowned for knock-off goods.)
But while hundreds of Chinese staff the shop floors of these new malls – ostensibly receiving regular paycheques – few people ever seem to buy anything. It's mind-boggling and worrying at the same time.
To keep you abreast of The Great Wait For The Chinese Consumer in one neighbourhood of Beijing, I humbly offer the first – and completely unscientific – "Ma Kai Index" (my Chinese name is pronounced "Ma Kai"). Make of it what you will, and I'll update it irregularly in the months ahead.
Date of study: Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012
Route of walk: Started with a loop of the high-end Sanlitun Village North Mall, then walked through the main floor of the grittier 3.3 mall, then the main Sanlitun Village, before finishing on main level of Sanlitun Soho shopping and office complex. (In all, I wandered through about two kilometres of prime shopping turf.)
Time started: 12 p.m.
Time finished: 1:30 p.m.
Number of stores visited: 51 (not including Apple or the knock-off market)
Number of empty retail spaces that I passed: 11 (plus an entire tower of Sanlitun Soho that has yet to find a single tenant)
Number of employees seen working in the 51 stores: 92
Number of customers seen in the 51 stores (not necessarily buying anything, just two feet inside the store): 41
Number of those shoppers who were in Uniqlo, a popular Japanese clothing chain: 12
Number of employees seen making out in the back of an empty store: 2
Number of employees seen napping: 2
Number of near fistfights between merchants and security guards: 1 (the guard wanted to see some documentation that the merchant was either unwilling or unable to provide)
Ma Kai economic activity ratio: 0.45 (number of shoppers, divided by number of employees)
Ratio with Uniqlo excluded: 0.33
Ma Kai optimism index (compared to previous month): -1
I've been walking around this neighbourhood for three years now, and despite the lopsided figures, this is probably the largest number of shoppers I've noticed at any one time. Is the Chinese consumer starting to materialize? Or was Uniqlo just having a really good sale?
The bad news is that the number of empty storefronts is up sharply of late, with the likes of Benetton, Timberland and Colombia among the recent casualties. It's never a good sign when the capital of the country that's supposed to save the world has a rising number of "Coming Soon" signs papering over the spaces where stores aimed at its middle class used to be.