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Jeffrey Towson -- Chinese moms are a force to reckon with

The big China consumer stories of the past year have included a vaccine scandal, food contamination scares, surging overseas home buying and school attendance, and continued rising consumption by urban families.

These stories, in reality, are mostly about Chinese women as an ascending consumer class. More specifically, they are about Chinese moms, who are quickly becoming the most important consumers on the planet. How so? Because mothers are a central driving force behind increasing Chinese household consumption.

There are an estimated 320 million moms in China, making them roughly equal in number to the entire U.S. population. These Chinese mothers have their own personal spending power and typically contribute half of family income. Their personal wealth has been rising as they pursue more higher education and as their careers advance. This emphasis has had the side effect of delaying marriage and childbirth.

Over the past decade, the average age at which women in China gave birth rose from 24 to 27 and it is expected to keep rising toward 30. So these women have more money and higher incomes when they do get married, which leads to lots of interesting consequences such as more expensive weddings (and divorces).

Chinese mothers typically direct household spending. In a 2010 MasterCard survey, 75% of Chinese women said that they were the ones who controlled the family budget. Often this is done indirectly, with the husband paying for the family home and the wife running and furnishing it. But this overall spending control can sometimes be more explicit, with the wife approving expenditures above a certain level. In some cases, Chinese wives control the family bank accounts and simply give their husbands cash to use.

Chinese mothers also often control family spending related to both their parents and their husband's. This is particularly true for larger expenditures such as housing and medical bills. Thus, Chinese moms are often effectively directing spending across three generations.

Obsessional focus

Such family-centric spending control by mothers is not unusual globally. But in China it is amplified by the one-child policy, the prevalence of pampered "little emperors" and the greater health and safety concerns of living in China. We see Chinese moms being almost obsessively concerned with the health and safety of their one child, from the water they drink to the food they consume, and from their education to their general safety.

This can regularly be seen in the advertising targeted at women across China. In the West, ads for women often speak to themes of independence or fun. However, in China, a focus on happy and healthy families is much more common.

A typical example was the "Moms' Trust" campaign launched by McDonald's in China in 2013 which highlighted healthy children and long-lasting relationships. McDonald's Chinese website even includes sections such as "Mom's standards, our standards," "We care for how healthy our chicks grow," "We strictly follow proper kitchen sanitation and hygiene practices" and "We give our best to give you a nutritious breakfast". All of this is for the benefit of China's moms.

Health and wellness is a now national priority in China and it is mostly a women's and mom's issue. For example, 60% of Chinese men smoke and this proportion is still rising. In contrast, only about 3% of Chinese women smoke and that share is falling.

Consider also the buzz generated by the pollution documentary "Under the Dome" last year. The film, which won some official praise initially before being deleted from the Chinese Internet, was often compared to the U.S. environmental documentary "Silent Spring" in bringing air pollution to a new level as a national priority. But "Under the Dome" actually offered no new information on pollution in China. What it did do was frame pollution in the story of a mother worrying about the impact on her daughter's health.

Consider two more recent news stories. In April, an elite private school in the city of Changzhou, between Shanghai and Nanjing, was found to have been built on polluted land. Over 500 students had become ill, touching off investigations and protests. Look at news photos of the protesters: The crowds are almost entirely Chinese moms.

Meanwhile, Jiang Yilei, a postgraduate student and Internet sensation who goes by the stage name Papi Jiang, recently signed a 22 million yuan ($3.37 million) advertising deal with a beauty products e-commerce site. Jiang rose from obscurity to national fame in six months with her homemade videos in which she plays various characters. Note that the most popular series is of a young career woman dealing with the pressure to marry and have a baby.

Going global

Consistent with overall shifts in Chinese consumer behavior, moms are also changing rapidly as consumers. They are moving away from bargain hunting and becoming less price sensitive, especially when purchases relate to health, safety or education.

Chinese moms are also going global. For example, the number of Chinese women going to California to give birth surged in 2015 despite U.S. efforts to crack down on companies involved in this "birth tourism". Some estimates suggest such Chinese births in the U.S., a phenomenon depicted in the Chinese hit romantic comedy "Finding Mr. Right," now exceed 60,000 a year.

For the Chinese moms involved, this strategy is about giving their children U.S. citizenship and increasing educational opportunities. U.S. citizenship not only eases the way for these children to attend American schools, all the way from kindergarten to graduate school, but it also helps to get them into elite international schools back in China.

Additionally, fertility clinics in Los Angeles have been reporting growing numbers of Chinese clients. Clinics I have spoken to say 20-40% of their patients are now visiting Chinese. Western fertility services are generally at a significantly higher quality level than those in China and can include offerings illegal in China, such as gender selection.

Another cross-border health services trade getting a lift is aesthetics, driven mostly by Chinese women between 25 and 40 years old. This is quite different than in the West where botox, plastic surgery and other such treatments are overwhelming purchased by women over 40. In China, it is younger women, frequently young moms, who are the customers and they are traveling to places such as Thailand, South Korea and increasingly Hong Kong in pursuit of higher quality service.

Overall, moms are at the forefront of the rising wealth of Chinese households and they are directing most of the spending. Given concerns about China's gross domestic product growth and the need for economic re-balancing, I would argue this makes them the most important consumers on the planet right now.

Jeffrey Towson is a professor of investment at Peking University's Guanghua School of Management and co-author of the "One Hour China Book."

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