THE YOUNG woman, who called herself Cindy, was telling me about her class in Marxist philosophy at Beijing's Second Foreign Language University. We were sitting in a teahouse across the street from the Malls at Oriental Plaza, a mind-blowing swatch of the future that epitomizes a part -- perhaps the more decadent part -- of Chinese capitalism, and so I couldn't help but ask: Wasn't there a bit of a contradiction between the philosophy she was learning and the world outside her classroom walls?
No, she said, it's just that Marxist philosophy "is very difficult for me to understand."
You and me both, Cindy. A couple of hours at a Chinese mall will do that to anybody.
China is emerging as the world's new mall superpower. The South China Mall in the southern city of Dongguan is said to be the largest on the planet, eclipsing Beijing's claimant to the title, the Golden Resources Mall (nicknamed the "Great Mall of China").
It is estimated that by 2010, seven of the world's 10 largest malls will be in China. It's as if a billion-plus Chinese are suddenly making up for decades of lost consumerism.
The Malls at Oriental Plaza, a short walk from Tiananmen Square in the center of Beijing, is neither the largest nor the busiest. But it is certainly among the most eye-popping. It's hard to think of a mall in Southern California that wouldn't look dowdy next to it because of its sleek, postmodern design, international restaurants and stores -- not just Levi and Nike, not just Tiffany and Swarovski, not just Paul Smith, Burberry and Valentino, but a Volkswagen showroom (including the Phaeton, the luxury car yanked from the U.S. market) and an Audi showroom, where dangling, flat-panel computer screens offer specs for each car. I ate at a restaurant called "My Humble House," which was humble in the way that P. Diddy is humble, in the way that Las Vegas is humble. The food was terrific.
Cindy scammed me. A pink-wrapped sparkplug who stood barely higher than my elbow, she had approached me at the mall and said she was an English student who needed to practice her language with a foreigner. She brought me to the teahouse, where we were gouged, presumably with a portion kicked back to her. It's an old con.
The truth is, I didn't much care. She had pluck and also some smart ideas. She said she had little use for the Malls at Oriental Plaza because it wasn't "the real China." Look, she said, nobody's buying anything except at the restaurants. That seemed pretty close to the truth -- I'd seen a lot of looking but not a lot of people with packages. "They're just window shopping," she said.
As we parted, she gave me an e-mail address and said to contact her if I needed a guide around Beijing. Then she said: "Sorry. Thank you. Bye-bye." Like Marx in China, the mall had been difficult to comprehend. Cindy, I got.