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As China seeks new economic growth, is it time to unleash the power of the ‘she-conomy’?

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And although earning a living working as a freelance writer and antique dealer means she does not have a regular income, Nan said her life is “quite nice” with a complete focus on herself.

‘She-cession’ threat still real as China’s post-pandemic gender gap widens

Nan is just one of the many Chinese women who, with improved education, better financial capability and diversified lifestyles, are being more generous with investment in their own happiness, driving a growing “she-conomy” in China.

But China needs to stabilise income expectations to take full advantage of its female consumers, which are one of the world’s most influential consumer groups, as it seeks to switch from an investment-led growth model to one that relies more on consumption, economists said.

A phrase coined to describe the escalating impact women are having on the economy, the so-called she-conomy in China is backed up by a working-age female population of about 433 million, according to the 2020 census.

And studies have proven that the cohort plays a leading role in personal spending and family purchase in China.

In 2022, growth in spending by female consumers was 5.51 per cent higher than by men on JD.com, one of China’s largest online shipping platforms, the company said in a report last year.

“Female consumers’ influence over China’s overall consumption not only lies in their great purchasing power, but also their ever-increasing voice and ability to stimulate spending vitality,” said Keiyou Wang, category director of the “China Report” at market research firm Mintel.

Compared with men, the preference by Chinese women for “non-necessities”, including goods and services bought to celebrate all types of special days, is adding vigour to the market, she added.

And a major part of that trend is coming from a growing awareness by women to treat themselves, according to Shen Jiake, a popular writer of women’s fiction and an independent commentator with a large female following.

‘I’m my own hero’: independent women fuel China’s booming ‘she economy’

Shen found that in recent years, many of her mostly married female readers started using money that used to be allocated for their children on themselves.

“One housewife said to me that in the past, 70 per cent of all her family expenditure went to her children, but now she’s only spending 30 per cent on them, saving the rest for herself,” Shen said.

Quoting a newly-coined term which translates to a “deep involvement in one’s own happiness”, Shen said it is a quite obvious trend that women are focusing more on themselves and becoming more independent in spending.

And besides traditional preferences for clothes and make-up, Chinese women are showing a growing interest in new areas that were traditionally male-dominated, including cars and games, added Wang at Mintel.

We believe it is time for the world to fully embrace its she-conomy era

Goldman Sachs

Citing Mintel’s recent report on China’s car retail market, Wang said female buyers are more interested in smart configurations- including the integration of sophisticated electronics, sensors, and software – and have a higher budget than men.

The “she-conomy” in China is rising amid a similar trend in other parts of the world, Goldman Sachs said in March, as more women in the past decades are making progress towards breaking into more roles previously dominated by men.

“In 2023, we saw ‘womenomics’ – the increasing impact and contribution of women to the global economy – drive a larger share of economic growth than ever before,” Goldman Sachs said in its report.

“We believe it is time for the world to fully embrace its she-conomy era,” it added, pointing to American feminist film Barbie being the world’s highest grossing film last year.

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Young feminist defies Chinese government’s childbearing drive as population shrinks

Young feminist defies Chinese government’s childbearing drive as population shrinks

However, the potential of China’s female consumer market has yet to be fully released as an overall tendency to tighten the purse strings remains amid weak confidence in economic growth due to deep-rooted structural issues, including the bursting of property bubbles and a rapidly ageing population.

Wang said Mintel’s monthly consumer tracking figures showed that, regardless of their gender, Chinese consumers are becoming more rational and realistic in spending, with the phenomena of “spending in advance” and “going over budget” fading.

But women are still more willing to spend, with 64 per cent saying in a recent Mintel survey on stress-relieving activities that “saving money makes me happier than spending”, compared with 68 per cent of male respondents.

Xiao Lisheng, a researcher in macroeconomics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said consumers need stable income increases and improvements in the job market to feel freer to spend.

I think it will still take some time [for more spending capability to be unlocked]

Xiao Lisheng, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

“The economy is in the process of stabilising, but there’s still a certain level of uncertainty in such stabilisation, and the same is true with income growth,” he said.

“So I think it will still take some time [for more spending capability to be unlocked].”

Consumption contributed 82.5 per cent of China’s economic growth in 2023, and the share should further expand this year due to pent-up demand as last year was the first year of reopening following the coronavirus, officials pledged at the central economic work conference in December.

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