Waiting for a friend in Shenzhen's plush Kingglory Plaza, Chen Jing, 25, admires her new red Nokia mobile phone. Complete with 3G and MP3 features, the phone cost just over 3,000 yuan ($400) -- Chen's entire monthly wage.

But she's more than pleased with her purchase.

"It looks really good," she says.

Extravagant spending perhaps, but female consumers like Chen are spurring much-needed growth in Chinese consumption and helping offset the country's high savings rate, a source of tension with its trading partners.

"Urban women consumers will be spending much of their hard-earned cash on personal travel and related cultural and recreational activities, dining out, shopping, as well as buying cars and pursuing urban leisure lifestyles," Yuwa Heidrick-Wong, economic adviser to MasterCard International, said.

Their spending will help determine which foreign brands succeed in China. Credit Suisse cites luxury goods firms LVMH, Christian Dior and Valentino among its top picks along with watch maker Swatch Group as well as Nokia and Coca-Cola Co.

China's retail sales rose 15.7 percent in the first eight months of this year, reflecting rising incomes and urbanisation.


Household consumption, however, is the lowest of any major economy. It fell to 36.4 percent of gross domestic product in 2006 from 37.7 percent in 2005, when the comparable figures for the United States and India were 70 percent and 61 percent. The downtrend is now new: in 1990 China's ratio was 49 percent.

That makes China too dependent on investment, which risks overheating, and exports, whose share of GDP has doubled in the past decade to 40 percent -- more than twice that of the United States and Japan.

If China consumed more, imports would rise, narrowing a ballooning trade surplus. Reduced reliance on exports, moreover, would make the economy less vulnerable to global economic shocks.

"Exports depend on the health of your trading partners: if your trading partners go down, you go down," said Chris Leung, China economist at DBS Bank in Hong Kong.

CLSA sees the U.S. economy -- China's biggest trading partner

-- tipping into recession late this year, causing China's -- tipping into recession late this year, causing China's economic growth to slump to around 5 percent in the second half of 2008 from an estimated 11.5 percent for all of 2007.

DBS's Leung disagrees: pending interest rate cuts will shore up the U.S. economy and the Beijing Olympics will help boost China's retail sales by 18 percent in 2008, he says.

That's still relatively weak given that exports and investment are surging by 20-30 percent annually. But analysts say there is no quick fix.

"If retail sales grow any faster China will have an overheating problem because the economy is already expanding by 11 percent and investment is growing by 20-30 percent," said Tim Condon, Asia economist at ING Financial Markets in Singapore.

High savings rates reflect job insecurity at restructuring state companies, shaky welfare protection and -- in boomtowns like Shenzhen -- homebuyers' need to keep up with soaring property prices.

Outside Kingglory Plaza, George Clooney grins benevolently from an Omega watch advert. But even he was having difficulty persuading men in the mall to spend one recent Sunday afternoon.

Calvin Klein and Hugo Boss have "sale" signs across their windows, but men in the mall mostly sit around checking mobile phones or playing with their children.


If young women seem more financially carefree, it could be because rapid growth has enabled them to break out of traditional roles.

Job opportunities for educated women in cities have never been better: Credit Suisse estimates average monthly wages among urban 20-29 year olds jumped 34 percent in 2006, while average urban incomes grew 18 percent.

Donis Zhao, 26, a beauty consultant, says her mother, a doctor, keeps telling her to start saving, but she sees no need.

"I want to focus on my job. If I work very hard and learn a lot, I can earn more," she said. "It's not like when my mother was young 20 years ago and China was poor."

Gen Tang, a 20-something Hong Konger married to a Shenzhen native, says young Chinese women are too susceptible to advertising by foreign brands.

"They're buying for status," he said. "LV tells them: this is good and they buy it," he said, referring to Louis Vuitton.

His wife, May May Yang, sporting a pink Abercrombie & Fitch baseball cap, admits to a weakness for Versace cosmetics and says she spends up to 1,000 yuan on a new Dior perfume every few months.

"I've got friends who'll save 10 months' wages to buy a 20,000 yuan scarf, easily," she said.

(US$=7.5222 yuan)