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Originally published December 24, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 24, 2007 at 12:02 AM

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China falls for Christmas — at least in the stores

Christmas has secured a spot on the Chinese calendar as a cherished excuse to buy, buy, buy. And while Christianity is indeed spreading in the officially atheist country, many shoppers have only a faint idea of the holiday's religious connection.

BEIJING — It was the week before Christmas, and the crush of shoppers elbowing their way past stalls at the Tian Yi market would have been familiar to holiday gift buyers anywhere.

So would the brightly colored baubles, red and gold bows, and strings of flashing lights from which the crowds were choosing: After all, China manufactures more than 80 percent of the world's Christmas decorations.

But now those decorations are increasingly brightening the streets, offices and homes of China itself, as Chinese young people embrace a foreign festival with growing fervor.

"We love our Oriental culture, but we are open to new things, too," says Yuan Yonghong, branch manager of a beauty-products company, as she chooses the decorations that will grace the office party she is organizing. "And this is new for us."

Christmas has secured a spot on the Chinese calendar as a cherished excuse to buy, buy, buy. And while Christianity is indeed spreading in the officially atheist country, many shoppers have only a faint idea of the holiday's religious connection.

But their manner of celebration is sure to win the blessing of at least one group: economists.

"It's not really a real holiday," said Benny Zhang, 29, a computer programmer outside a Beijing mall with his wife. "It's just a nice atmosphere for shopping and a chance to swap gifts with each other."

Economists long despaired that the Chinese propensity to save, not spend, was storing up trouble should China's exports falter and hurting the world economy because it was not buying enough from abroad.

Even as China has become wealthier, the savings culture has been reinforced by the dismantling of the social-security system, which forced ordinary people to keep enough money on hand for education, medicine and old age.

But Christmas reveals that Chinese consumers, buoyed by fast-rising incomes, have now burst on the scene with a fervor for shopping that someday might rival their U.S. counterparts.

"What is also true is there is a new generation that is coming along and really changing things," said Anna Kalifa, head of research in Beijing for Jones Lang LaSalle, a real-estate management firm. "They value quality and they want to spend money," she said.

Seven of the world's 10 biggest shopping malls will be in China by 2010, Kalifa said.

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Hard numbers show why. Retail sales rose 18.8 percent in November from a year earlier, marking the fastest growth since 1999, the National Bureau of Statistics reported this month.

An Mi, spokeswoman for one of China's biggest electronics retailers, Gome, says December sales now rival the traditional spike months for Chinese retailers, May and October, when consumers enjoy weeklong holidays to celebrate International Labor Day and National Day.

Bedecked in trees and bunting, with carols piped through their speakers, Chinese malls are thronged by shoppers at Christmas and look much like ones anywhere else in the world.

This commercialization of a religious festival has long been a concern of Christian leaders in the West. It doesn't worry some Chinese priests.

In China, hardly anyone knows the original reason for the holiday, they point out: Barely 3 percent of the population — about 40 million Chinese — are Christian.

That the gift-buying element of Christmas has spread faster than the holiday's religious rituals is seen by some Chinese Christians as more an opportunity than a worry.

"It's nothing to be disappointed about," said Liu Bainian, vice president of the China Patriotic Catholic Association. "It's good for understanding. From our perspective, it's good for spreading the idea of Christmas."

As long as shopping outpaces church-going, Christmas will cheer the hearts of government officials who have been trying to boost consumption to lessen the economy's reliance on exports.

That looks like a feasible aim thanks to the wealth piling up in Chinese pockets, as people cash in on soaring real-estate prices and the gains racked up by the stock market.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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