On the evening of Wednesday, July 15, Sanlitun Village came to life like never before. Hundreds of people flocked to the shopping center to take selfies in front of the three-story Uniqlo. Young Chinese raised their phones to the Uniqlo sign like fans in a concert pit. Riot police stalked the perimeter. The commercial center had finally achieved the electric atmosphere that its fiber optic fountains and massive LED screen have always aspired to induce.
Twelve hours earlier, a video of a young man and woman having sex in that Uniqlo’s dressing room blazed through China’s social media. The man is holding his phone up, filming over the girl’s shoulder as she watches herself in the changing room’s mirrors. A woman’s voice can be heard in the background; “Welcome to Uniqlo!”
The Uniqlo-gate rumors could pack a daytime television script: the pair had just bumped into each other in the store. The girl was aspiring to be China’s “first famous porn star.” The couple was planted by Uniqlo’s PR agency. The girl had killed herself (Comment from a Chinese friend: “Kill herself? Did you see the look in her face? Girls like that have nothing but love for themselves!”)
I’m as eager as anyone to find out the story behind it. However, the most captivating aspect of it all is not the mystery of the tryst, nor the possibility of it being a PR stunt, nor (as Western media outlets have emphasized) a sort of political thrust against internet censorship. Indeed, the thousands of Chinese youth that have swept through Sanlitun in the past few days to snap photos are hardly inspired by the violation of “socialist core values.” Chinese youth of today are not of the same ilk as Chinese youth of the 1980s.
Rather, the scandal’s intrigue lies in Chinese youths’ reverence of brands. Because what is actually interesting to Chinese youth isn’t just the sex, and it’s certainly not the violation of “socialist core values.” It’s that there was sex in Uniqlo. A cool, well-known brand in a cool, well-known shopping center.
Let’s take a step back. For Chinese youth, consumption is the largest arena of self-actualization they have. In its offering of bottomless product lines, integrated app services, and DIY experiences, consumption far outstrips school and home as places of exploration. State-regulated curriculum all but extinguishes intellectual stimulation. Home life comes with the pressure of parental expectations. Independent decision-making is a rare commodity for Chinese youth – except in the domain of consumption.
To compare it with high school as the primary arena of self-exploration, which would be a comparable analogy in the West, brands take on the role as teachers. They offer values and new experiences through consumption of products and services. The most successful brands – that is, the ones that are considered coolest by youth – are more like venerable upperclassman. If Chinese youth are the underclassmen, they carefully follow brands like Apple and Vans to learn how to build a cool lifestyle.
Uniqlo is popular in Beijing. Its clothes convey self-confidence in their simple color selection and minimal patterning. Its staff is famously genial. Its Japanese origin conveys excellence in attention to detail. If Uniqlo were in a group of cool upperclassmen alongside Apple and Vans, it would be the cute popular girl who dresses well but doesn’t speak much. Underclassmen (the youth) see her as someone inherently attractive and admirable, but without much of a backstory.
Enter two hot underclassmen rebels. They’ve just had sex in Uniqlo’s bed, and put it on the internet for everyone in school to see.
For Uniqlo’s image as the elegant and admirable upperclassman, nothing changes. But now she has a story. She’s become a cultural icon, a symbol of hormonal rebellion. Anyone who didn’t know Uniqlo before certainly does now. Indeed, the Sanlitun store has enjoyed floods of customers since the incident.
And now that Uniqlo has a story that resonates with all young people, one of rebellion and sex (even better, rebellion through sex), everyone who’s anyone is going to claim a piece of that legend. Which is why going to Uniqlo to take selfies makes sense. By placing themselves at the foot of the metaphorical bed for all their friends to see, it’s a way for youth to say, “I am a part of this rebellion.”
And yet, there is really nothing badass about taking a selfie at a shopping mall. The picture-takers haven’t actually done anything – I’ll reiterate that China’s youth today are not of the same ilk as youth of the 1980s. Now, they are celebrating youth-dom in a way that only modern Chinese would: at a safe arm’s length from the crime itself, while consuming the crime as if it were a hot new product.