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In China, seasonal celebrations have less to do with religion than in the West.|
Michael Sheridan, Far East Correspondent
Millions of surplus seasonal decorations churned out by Chinese factories have ended up on sale in China itself, where Christmas has become a festival of consumerism in the officially atheist state.
From Shanghai to Shenzhen, shopping centres and hotels are festooned with streamers and fairy lights, echoing to the piped music of secular carols as discounts lure families in to buy gifts.
“Nothing goes to waste,” boasted Yang Dawei, a merchant in the giant wholesale market of Yiwu, Zhejiang province, where buyers flock from around the globe. “If it isn’t exported, it’s sold here or kept for another year.”
Santa Claus and indeed his family members — there is a Mrs Claus in many Chinese stores — as well as snowmen and reindeer are seen everywhere.
Conspicuous by their absence, however, are Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Cribs, mangers and farm animals are also out. One safe favourite: a flashing red star atop a white plastic Christmas tree.
In China, the seasonal frenzy has even less to do with religion than in the West. One official survey found that less than half of those planning to celebrate Christmas knew what it commemorated.
That will reassure Chinese officials, who are profoundly suspicious of spontaneous religious manifestations. There are only 15m members of the recognised “patriotic” Christian groups, although tens of millions more are said to worship in unauthorised “house churches”.
The idea in China is to have Christmas without Christianity, making the festival into a celebration of its value to the Chinese economy — more than £7 billion of toy exports last year.
In that spirit, bars and restaurants in Beijing were booked out for office parties as affluent younger Chinese seized any excuse for revelry, especially in the cold northern cities where snow and ice add to the atmosphere.
Clever marketing has turned the time of giving into one long shopping spree that lasts until China’s own biggest family festival, the lunar new year, in late January.
It is also a bonanza for British retailers breaking into the luxury market in China. In Beijing, the windows of Burberry, shirt maker Thomas Pink, Aquascutum, Dunhill and other prestigious brands all testify to the marketing power of the Victorian Christmas, despite hefty import taxes.
For the growing number of wealthy Chinese tourists to London, Harrods and Selfridges opened their Christmas gifts sections early this year.
Research for Selfridges showed Chinese customers were big spenders on its Christmas baubles and decorations, apparently because they were seen as desirable souvenirs.
The growth of mass consumption in China has been fuelled by people obtaining credit cards for the first time as well as by big household savings.
But Chinese businessmen in the know are asking themselves how long the party can last. Just as economies in the West are slowing down, the 8,000 toy companies in China are raising their prices, pushed by wage and cost inflation.
“Prices are going up,” is the constant refrain of Bruce Rockowitz, chief executive of Li & Fung, the biggest wholesale supplier of toys in the world.
For some Chinese workers, Christmas came early. Wages almost doubled to about £200 a month this year at many plastics factories in southern China. Last year there was a 40% wage rise across the board in the same region.
“Toy makers were passing on the price rises this autumn and with the way things are in the UK high street that’ll be a hard sell,” said a British businessman attending a Hong Kong trade fair. “Next year is going to be very tough for everyone.”