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While China — like Japan, South Korea and other “Asian tigers” that went before it — experienced unquestioned success using that export strategy, it bled millions of manufacturing jobs from the U.S. and EU economies and helped feed the cycle of recession and crushing indebtedness that China’s trading partners in the West are now struggling to overcome.

Prada and Audi

With status a major consideration among the affluent class, China within the past decade went from being largely a nation of rice-wine drinkers to one of the biggest global markets for French wine. People in China last year devoured more than 60 percent of the production of just one French brand — Chateau Lafite — driving the price so high that the winemaker stopped selling it in France, said Xu Hong, a wine importer in Ningbo.

Chateau Lafite did not comment, but its website notes that demand for Chateau Lafite’s 45,000 yearly cases of wine was so high that it drew record prices in Hong Kong last year, with three bottles of the 1869 vintage bought at the highest prices ever paid at an auction.

In view of the booming market, the French winemaker started a vineyard on China’s Penglai peninsula in Shandong province in a joint venture with China’s CITIC Group in 2008.

In addition to the French wine that Mr. Xu stocks for well-to-do clients in nearby Shanghai, he has a smattering of selections from Australia and Chile. He confessed that he does not offer a single American wine, suggesting it may be too high-priced.

French wines have a long history and are collectible, with an intricate classification system that the Chinese prefer, he told visiting U.S. journalists, while American winemakers have not done much to promote their wines among finicky Chinese consumers.

“People want to drink red wine. It is the healthiest alcohol,” he said, referring to studies showing that red wine helps stave off heart disease. “Red wine will be in large demand in the Chinese market. It is a good way to increase domestic demand in the economy.”

The allure of tapping such a marketplace has companies from around the globe scrambling. The outcome could save the country from a painful economic adjustment and help pull the rest of the world out of a long-running economic funk.

Mr. Kleintop said the awakening of the enormous economic potential of China’s consumers is one of a handful of major developments that could dramatically change the gloomy outlook for the U.S. economy — and financial markets. Global markets have been wracked by worries that China will falter, along with its chief export market, the EU, which appears to be sinking into recession.

So far, European companies — including Audi, Prada and BMW — seem to be winning the race for customers in China.

American brands and stores — besides popular restaurant chains such as McDonald’s and KFC — are seen less frequently in shopping malls and do not seem as heavily advertised as their European competition. Apple Inc., a favorite computer brand in China, for example, has only recently opened its first stores here.

Aside from some ostentatious spending on luxury goods by China’s elites, more typical Chinese citizens have not acquired a taste for wine or other expensive imports. They continue to hoard much of their income rather than spend it, in anticipation of having to pay medical and retirement expenses not covered by stingy social insurance programs recently set up by the government.

Moreover, middle-class consumers have to stash huge amounts of cash if they ever hope to make the typical 30 percent down payments on homes whose prices have soared beyond the reach of most households as a result of a real estate boom in recent years.

Coaxing the consumer

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