A recent study by a Chinese Academy of Social
Sciences claims the emerging Chinese middle class is a myth. All those interviewed
who believe they are middle class, are actually deluding themselves or lying.
Or are being lied to.
A concurrent stream of research by the Henry Luce Foundation in cooperation
with the Baker Institute and Rice University deals with the changes undergoing
Chinese culture and society after the doors have opened. This team of social
scientists is focusing heavily on advertisements and contemporary art. China,
for many Western academicians, is a beautiful petri dish in which a whole
century's development is taking place in slots of 5-year plans – and the heads
have determined that, yes, Chinese are susceptible to ads too.
Preliminary results show that the Chinese are being "encouraged" to think of
themselves as middle class. According to the Academy, 50% of Mainland Chinese
consider themselves "middle class": the myth lives.
The Academy's study focused on possessions, income, profession and subjective
identity. But it's only the last one that counts. In China it is hard to
distinguish between middle and upper class because the gulf between them and the
other 80% of the people in China is so huge – but the little valley separating
the filthy rich with the plain old well-off is present and growing.
Middle-class out here in the sticks means you make a few thousand RMB a month
– say 3000 – a decent place to live and time off to go out on the town or take
a trip to Yunnan during the Spring Festival. That includes a vast swath of the
urban population. Chinese save money – at a rate of 40%; car registrations are
in the thousands per month in Chengdu and climbing; Carrefour is popping up in
every major city across the country – peasants don't shop at stores like
Carrefour and Metro and they drive carts.
The Chinese middle class is very alive, but also very fragmented. It is not
enough to separate people based on finances: middle class is a way of life, a
pattern of consumption. Those who have been hit by the "magic bullet" – be it
sinister ads placed by the huge corporations to brainwash us into buying their
goods or Brandy's latest hit – are those who constitute the middle class. The
whole society is treated to TV shows based in a Beijing loft apartment that
doesn't exist outside of major urban areas, but if you are in a city and have an
apartment, you can identify. You don't have to own a car, you just have to want
to own one.
What the Academy's study shows is that China's society is transforming at a
higher pace than its economy. The question has always been Can China Keep Up the