Back in April 1992, a headline splashed across the world news section of the Los Angeles Times proclaiming “A Cultural Revolution in Beijing, via Golden Arches.” It reported a franchise that at 28,000 square feet, with 700 seats and 850 total employees, would be the chain’s largest store anywhere. The astounding statistics, combined with a prime location two blocks from Tiananmen Square—the symbolic heart of the China—made clear that this McDonald’s was as much a statement as it was a burger shop.
While the article backed up its assertion that this McDonald’s augured a revolution in Beijing by noting that this store was the just the first of a $50 million push to open twenty more locations within three years, it missed the fact that other changes had already happened, and their dissolution made it feasible for this gleaming new McDonald’s to open in the first place. The true foundations for the eventual entrance of fast-food burgers and fries were laid a full fourteen years earlier, when China’s “paramount leader,” Deng Xiaoping, instituted a series of “reform and opening up” policies aimed at shifting China away from a state-planned, collectivist economy towards one that emphasized consumerism and individual accumulation of wealth.
The shift was profound from both an ideological and economic standpoint. According to Mao’s philosophy, an ideal citizen should be “more concerned about others than himself.” Deng, however, urged citizens to “avoid equalitarianism.” Just as revolutionary were the effects of this idea. In the dozen years before McDonald’s opened in Beijing, the city’s GDP per capita had jumped from $250 to $1,049.
Deng is also responsible for introducing another policy that ran counter to Mao’s beliefs: the famous one-child policy. Whereas Mao believed that there could never be too many Chinese people—human resources, he reasoned, would be China’s best defense in an inevitable third world war—Deng saw China’s massive population as a roadblock to economic prosperity. The number of children born to each woman in China dropped from 5.93 in 1970 to 2.66 in 1979, and fell to two births per woman in 1992.
The combination of these two factors—China’s remarkable economic takeoff and its astounding drop in birthrate—gave rise to what’s called the “little emperor” phenomenon, a key concept for understanding how primed the Chinese market was for McDonald’s arrival. At the heart of this concept is the “4-2-1 syndrome”: each child benefits from the pampering, undivided attention—and, more importantly, the ever-growing economic resources—of four grandparents and two parents (and, in urban areas, often the beneficiaries of 40 to 50 percent of his or her parents’ combined income). McDonald’s recognized the incredible purchasing power of these children, and focused its initial advertising push on wooing them.
But purchasing power alone does not explain why the little emperors were so important to McDonald’s. Having grown up in the age of Deng’s individual-centric policies, the new generation “neither understood nor valued the asceticism and collective morality of their parents,” according to anthropologist Judith Farquhar’s book Appetites: Food and Sex in Post-Socialist China. Growing up during the original Cultural Revolution, little emperors’ parents faced a society in which “the collective priorities of ‘building Chinese socialism’ ruled all surfaces of life.” Food was no exception. As a saying went at the time, “Is eating and drinking a mere trifle? No. Class struggle exists even at the tips of your chopsticks!”
For the older generation, Cultural Revolution propaganda was rooted in truth. They experienced the widespread famine that paralyzed the country. And, through family lore or the loss of a family member, they grew up with the knowledge of the previous famines: a series of isolated incidences from 1927 to 1950, and the Great Famine during Mao’s devastating “Great Leap Forward” from 1958 to 1962, when between twenty and thirty million Chinese died. Farquhar writes that, as a result of this personal and historical memory, “except, perhaps, for the youngest consumers, relatively new forms of self-indulgence have a political and transgressive edge: 1990s individualism and consumerism are not at all socialist and are quite inimical to Maoism.” Seen in that light, McDonald’s had little choice but to focus its initial marketing efforts on those least affected by these factors: China’s 300 million young people.
Though this group was often described as “drowning in love” from the 4-2-1 structure, many sociologists have pointed out that, as only children, they felt profoundly lonely in the larger context of China’s new individual-centric society. Competitive and lonely, wealthy and not afraid to flaunt it, this generation of children began to define themselves and their position through their consumption choices.
McDonald’s offered them a perfect way to do so. Each one of the initial McDonald’s outlets in Beijing featured a special enclosure called “children’s paradise,” a play space that served as a supplementary schoolyard. It assuaged the after-school loneliness of Beijing’s only children—instead of going home to their parents and grandparents, they could go to McDonald’s to play with their peers. McDonald’s hired young men and women to play “Uncle Ronald” and “Auntie McDonald.” Aunties and uncles led group dance games and chatted with children about their day, further personalizing the McDonald’s experience for the lonely little emperors.
The company was also savvy enough to understand that while these children may be responsible for bringing their families to McDonald’s, winning over their parents would be crucial to long-term success. To combat their unfamiliarity with fast-food dining experiences and a Mao-influenced, consumption-adverse mentality, McDonald’s appealed to them through education and family values. Denied an education by the Cultural Revolution’s edicts, these parents were fanatical about ensuring one for their children. McDonald’s sponsored essay competitions in which the winner received a “Certificate of Merit” from a local branch. The company also awarded “Ronald McDonald Scholarships” to students who showed exceptional academic achievement.
A Beijing McDonald’s promoted it plainly, “We want the parents to know that children are attracted to our restaurant not only by food—there are a lot of things children can learn here.” Through its shrewd decision to frame itself as a site of education rather than a site of consumption, McDonald’s was telling its future customers that a meal there wasn’t a flashy “investment” in burgers and fries, but rather a wise one in education and their children’s futures.
Television advertisements focused on all members of the 4-2-1 family going to McDonald’s together. By showing a typical family meal taking place in a McDonald’s—traditional and modern intertwined—the company aimed to convince parents and grandparents that although the site and style of consumption may be different, the core value of a family meal remains the same.
It was a message perfectly tuned to the times. In those years, extended families were no longer living under the same roof. McDonald’s slogan at the time—“Get together at McDonald’s; enjoy the happiness of family life!”—suggests that the company was well aware of this change. In the past, families didn’t have to “get together”—they lived together. Capitalizing on this remarkable shift, McDonald’s promoted itself as “a pleasant and fashionable place to celebrate family harmony and solidarity in public.” At McDonald’s, this family-harmony marketing suggested, they did not have to choose: eating there was both an investment in their children’s future as well as an investment in supporting and including their larger kin group.
When McDonald’s opened, the question posed was: Would McDonald’s arrival usher in a new cultural revolution? But the policies and social changes of the decades leading up to that first store had already done it. McDonald’s was there to see if anybody wanted fries with that.